I Don't Believe in That God Either
Growing up, I both loved and dreaded Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It was so wonderful to see the synagogue full, spend those days with family and friends, sing together, celebrate, reflect. But honestly, I dreaded the prayer.
As I read our liturgy year after year, I wondered if people believed in a God who was the judge, plaintiff, counselor, and witness. I wondered if they thought they were literally passing beneath an imaginary God’s staff in those moments of T’filot. I wondered if they thought Avinu Malkeinu - our Father, our King - was actually a father or a king listening to their prayers.
This vivid imagery of God in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - more than any other imagery in the Jewish calendar - set me forth on a journey. And I want to share with you a Hasidic story about a very similar journey.
A man was going from village to village, from rabbi to rabbi, asking the same question: "Where can I find God?" but he was never satisfied with the answers he received, so he would pack his bag and move on to the next village. One rabbi told him, “Pray, and you'll find God." But the man had tried to pray, and he didn’t meet God.
Another rabbi told him, "Study, and you shall find God." But the studies seemed dry and irrelevant. The more he read, the more confused he became -- and the further removed from God he seemed to be.
A third rabbi said, "Forget your quest. God is within you." But the man had tried to find God within himself and failed.
One day, the man arrived, weary and discouraged, at a very small village set in the middle of a forest. He went up to a woman who was minding some chickens. She asked whom he could be looking for in such an isolated place, but she did not seem surprised when he told her he was looking for God. She quickly finished her chores and took him to the rabbi's house.
The man went in and found the rabbi studying. The man waited a moment, but he was impatient to be off to the next village expecting not to be satisfied. So, he interrupted: "Rabbi! How do I find God?" The rabbi paused and looked up at the man. The man, exhausted and exasperated, wondered which of the rote answers this rabbi would recite.
I think many of us can deeply relate to this man’s journey, this man’s search for God through prayer, through study, through introspection - but ultimately feeling weary and discouraged in that pursuit.
Feeling like it’s easier to dispose of the God our society portrays in movies, and cartoons, and art - the God sitting up there, watching down on us and intervening on a whim.
Living in a multicultural society like ours, and one that’s predominantly non-Jewish, means that religious lines blur and sometimes complicated ideas are reduced to elementary levels.
And when we’re talking about something as complex and personal as God, all the more so.
The other day on Facebook, I saw an adorable exchange.
My friends were watching TV with their daughter, and she asked who an actor was. They responded, Morgan Freeman. And their daughter asked what Morgan Freeman had been in. “Everything,” they said. At which point, their daughter’s eyes got wide: “OH!” she exclaimed. “He’s God!”
And that’s part of our struggle. How do we have a meaningful conversation about God when we associate the word with Morgan Freeman’s face or imagining God as a bearded man like in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. The Reform Judaism that raised me emphasized rationality and reason, and my understanding of an anthropomorphic God didn’t fit into that framework.
I want you to take a moment, close your eyes, and think about the last time someone asked you this question:
Do you believe in God?
What God did you imagine they were asking about?
Were they asking about a concept of God you found relevant and meaningful?
Or did you imagine them asking about the supernatural, anthropomorphic God who lives in heaven above us and fiddles with the trivialities of human life?
Since the book of Bereshit (Genesis), our tradition has encouraged wrestling with the divine. The term, Am Yisrael, often simply translated as the People of Israel, more literally translates to the people that wrestle with God, or the people that persevere with God. And the name Yisrael comes from the story of Jacob wrestling with a divine being. This manifestation of God says to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled or persevered with God…” (Gen 32:28). And that tradition is in our religious and spiritual DNA.
That’s how Maimonides taught in the 12th century that humans can only understand God as sparks of illumination; that God is beyond human reason - like trying to gaze at the sun. That’s how Baruch Spinoza redefined God in the 17th century as wholly impersonal and indistinguishable from nature or existence. God is nature; God is our existence.
And Maimonides and Spinoza are traditional Jewish sources. Both are pious, learned Jews that didn’t believe in God as an old man in heaven. And that is the dilemma that I felt acutely growing up and going to shul during the Yamim Noraim. That all of our stories and all of our liturgy – particularly on these Days of Awe – have that anthropomorphic God, that God that acts in human ways and talks like a human and holds grudges like a human.
So what do we do with that? I want to tell you the rest of the story,
picking back up in the Rabbi’s study with the man barging and impatiently interrupting him.
"Rabbi! How do I find God?" The rabbi paused and looked up at the man. The man, exhausted, wondered which of the rote answers this rabbi would recite.
But the rabbi said simply, "You've come to the right place. God is in this village. Why don't you stay for a few days? You might meet God." The man was puzzled. He didn’t understand what the rabbi could mean. But the answer was unusual and it intrigued him enough to stay.
For two or three days he explored every corner of the tiny village. He would ask the villagers where God was that day, but they would only smile and invite him to have a meal with them.
Gradually, he got to know them and even helped with some of the village work. Now and then, by chance, he would see the rabbi, and the rabbi would ask him, "Have you met God yet?"
And the man would smile, and sometimes he understood, and sometimes he did not understand. For months he stayed in the village, and then for years. He became part of the village life and shared in all the activities. He went to the synagogue on Friday and prayed with the rest of the community, and sometimes he knew why he prayed and sometimes he did not. And sometimes he really said the prayers and sometimes only the words.
And when he would join one of the families for a Friday night meal, and they talked about God, he was always assured that God was in the village, though no one was quite sure where or when God could be found. Gradually, he, too, began to believe that God was in the village, he just wasn't quite sure where. He knew, though, that since he arrived at the village, he had met God. One day, the rabbi sought him out, and said, “By now you’ve met God, have you not?"
And the man said, "Thank you, Rabbi, I think I have. But I'm not sure why I met God or how or when. And why is God only in this village?"
The rabbi chuckled and replied: "God is not a person or a thing. You cannot meet God in that way. You were so caught up in the question that you could not hear the answers. Now that you can find God, you can return to your village, if you wish." So the man went back to his town, and God went with him.
And the man prayed and studied, and knew that God was within him and within other people. And others sensed that, and sometimes they would ask him, "Where can we find God?" And the man would always answer, "You have come to the right spot. God is in this place.”
The God of our Machzor, The God of our Torah, The God of our Siddur – that God is a tool that our tradition employs to arouse our kishkes, to inspire our souls, to repair our character, to instruct our morality. The vivid imagery of God as a judge, or of God as a shepherd, of God as a monarch - it evokes feelings deep within us,
rousing our dormant souls in a way only imagination and poetry and metaphor can.
When we take those feelings that ignite our conscience, when we follow the moral compass instilled in us through mitzvot, prayer, and Torah - that is where we meet God. So tomorrow night, as the gates of Neilah close, we will leave this spiritual village that we started building tonight.
We will leave this palace in time in which we felt God as a community, and we will walk back home to our villages, back into our lives and our communities, with an inspired soul. It does not take a spiritual village or this palace in time, to feel God.
As the Rabbi taught, God is not a person or a thing. God is where we live; God is the love we share, God is sitting around the table and sharing a home cooked meal; God is the belly laughs and nostalgia. God is our fellowship when we feed the hungry and when we comfort the bereaved. God is a deep breath and the beauty of nature. God is the care we show for others. God is a hug from our children. God is our conscience and our hands as we work to repair this broken world.
So the next time you’re asked about God, I hope you’ll think for a moment and, at least inside your head think: "You know what, you’ve come to the right spot. God is in this place.”
In our first High Holidays here with Temple Sinai, my family and I have already felt such a warm welcome and a deep connection to this place. This is a new village for us, and we have come to find much of God in this community, in this sanctuary, in all of you.
My wife Michal and I, and our baby Aria, wish you an easy and meaningful fast, and a sweet, sweet new year. Gmar Chatimah Tova.
Delivered at Temple Sinai of Roslyn on 9/29/2017.