Rosh HaShana 5768
Idol-Smashers and Christ-Killers
During the past year, several books on one theme have made the best-seller lists, books with titles such as The God Delusion (by Richard Dawkins); Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (by Daniel C. Dennet); The End of Faith (by Sam Harris); God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (by Christopher Hitchens); and God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (by Victor J. Stenger).
While most of the authors are not Jewish, their thesis is very Jewish. Our history begins with the midrash of Avram smashing his father’s idols. We are commanded, “You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon…” (Lev. 26:1 and elsewhere); and we are commanded not to suffer the sorcerer or the necromancer, nor to allow among us those who would lead us to false gods. Later, if you’ll pardon the expression, “the Jews killed Christ.” The Qur’an has the Jews (or at least one tribe) betraying Muhammad. Early Zionism was a secular, if not anti-religious, political movement. The architect of modern Turkey as a strictly secular state of Muslims, and its first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was himself apparently of Jewish descent (don’t tell the Turks!).
In our day, Jews lead the pack in defending the separation of Church and State, or, as some of our neighbors perceive it, promoting “freedom from religion.”
The story is told of a Jewish family that sends their child to a Christian school, because it offers a fine education. One day, the student tells his father that they are learning about the Trinity. “Look, my dear,” the father says, “let me set you straight. We’re Jewish. There is only one God. And we don’t believe in Him.”
We are a nation of idol-smashers and Christ-killers.
These books argue that the common belief in God is either irrational, illogical, unscientific; or worse: delusional, deleterious, dangerous.
But while the writers sometimes refer to the “Judeo-Christian-Islamic God,” for the most part, they do not speak of the God of Israel. They don’t understand anything of the God of Israel.
I largely agree with the position of those writers, and I have a complete faith in the God of Israel. I will tell you why I am a fanatic follower of the God of Israel.
First, a few observations.
God as a Mystery. Theology as an Elective
Former Jewish Theological Seminary of America Chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsh said that while belief in God is a “core value” of Conservative Judaism (and seventh in his list of seven such values — last but not least), our awareness of God is indirect:
To speak of God is akin to speaking about the undetected matter of the universe. Beyond the reach of our instruments, it constitutes at least 90 per cent of the mass in the universe. Its existence is inferred solely from its effects: the gravitational force, otherwise unaccounted for, that it exerts on specific galactic shapes and rotational patterns and that it contributes in general to holding the universe together. Sacred Cluster: The Core Values of Conservative Judaism
In yeshiva, and in rabbinical school, we study a little Bible, a little Midrash, how to tie tefillin knots, and a lot of Talmud and halakha (law). Maybe once in a while there will be an optional lecture on God. Maybe. At the Jewish Theological Seminary, there are many bookcases of volumes on Talmud, law, history, sociology — and maybe somewhere a few shelves on Theology. Quick, name three great modern Jewish Theologians: Buber, Heschel…um, um, Herberg? Frankel? Rozensweig? Theology does not seem to be a field dominated by Jewish thinkers. Yes, there is a quest for God, but it most often does not take place within the discipline of Theology.
Christians form and split denominations over doctrinal matters of theology, as do Muslims. Jewish communities, though, seldom split over theology. We split over — we’ll, that’s an hour-long comedy routine in its own right. God is important, but we don’t fight over theology. If we can’t decide whether God wants us to hang the mezuza vertically or horizontally, then we hang it diagonally.
Not long ago, some people thought physics as described by Newton and other classic physicists accurately explained everything about how the universe works. Buildings, bridges and railroads were built based on Newtonian Physics. Now we realize that Newtonian physics, at a fundamental level, does not understand what is really going on. Even though it was wrong, it was close enough, and it works for us, at least for most things we do. Now we have a better model to understand physics, but we know that it is not complete, and we are not sure that it is even right. Newtonian physics was flawed, but physics still exists. We can only understand how the universe works indirectly by observation, experimentation, and deep thought. We know that there is a universe, and we know that it follows rules, but we can understand it only indirectly.
We all believe that there is something called time. But none of us can explain it, and none of us really understands it in a deep way. Maybe some of our brilliant physicists or mathematicians here could explain it, but few of us would understand their explanation. In fact, most of what we think about time is probably wrong, our physicists might tell us. Nevertheless, we know it exists, and we live our lives based on this belief, but we surely cannot explain it. Time as we understand it, as we experience it, is only a limited, simplified, indirect expression of an important reality in our universe.
Our understanding of how the world works — physics and mathematics — and how people work — sociology and anthropology and political science — our understanding of that which is right before our eyes, perfectly accessible to us, is so very limited and imperfect. Our understanding of quasars and distant objects in the universe, or objects distant in time, or, as Rabbi Schorsh puts it, the “dark matter of the universe,” is only indirect and incipient. Our understanding of time, a dimension we live in, is barely coherent. And our understanding of this concept of God, which is far bigger than our world, less accessible than the atom, more complex than all of physics, more enveloping and mysterious than time, permeating all space like the quantum, remote as the farthest galaxy — our understanding is so very tentative. When I hold a worm in my hand, it is aware of me, but it does not understand anything about me.
Maimonides said 800 years ago (in his book Mishne Torah) that part of the mitzva of “loving God” is to try to learn about God — to know God is to love God — through God’s handiwork.
That is, by studying what today we call science, including psychology and social sciences, we can see how the world works and appreciate what God made and come to understand God indirectly through that work, just as we can know something about an artist by looking at her art, or an engineer by studying his design. Thus, studying science is a “religious” act in Judaism, a high calling. To seek God, we must seek to understand our world.
A Glimpse of God
Who is the God of Israel?
As Moshe asks God, in the famous burning bush scene, “Who are You?” (Exodus 3).
God answers, “I am that I am — E-hye asher E-hye.”
This could mean, “I am existence.” Or it could mean “I am what you will encounter of me.” We, human beings, exist for each other only insofar as we interact with each other, only as we know each other. We only see a very small part of each other’s lives, but our whole picture of another person is based only on that small part. One time I encountered one of our congregants — someone who comes to shul maybe three times a year, at most — at the Stop ‘n Shop. He said, in surprise, “Rabbi, where is your white robe?”
As we grow, our concept of parent evolves. Parents begin as The Source of Milk. Then, Giant Nostrils in the Sky. Then, The Ones who say “No.” Then, Embarrassing Adults Who Live With Me. Then, Keepers of the Car Keys. Then, Pays My Bills. And, we hope, eventually, Wise Venerated Elders. Avinu Malkenu, do our parents really change so much? Does God change so much?
“I am that I am.” I am what you encounter of me. Or it could mean… who knows?
Some people see the hand of God in the unfolding of history. Some people believe that part of the Torah was literally dictated verbally by God. Others believe that it is somehow “inspired” by God. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it,
With amazing consistency the Bible records that the theophanies witnessed by Moses occurred in a cloud. Again and again we hear that the Lord “called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:16)….
We must neither willfully ignore nor abuse by allegorization these important terms. Whatever specific fact it may denote, it unequivocally conveys to the mind the fundamental truth that God was concealed even when He revealed, that even while His voice became manifest, His essence remained hidden. …It was in the most obscure or most hidden part of a cloud, or in a hiddenness deeper than the one Moses himself had known, that the theophany at Sinai occurred.
God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism p. 193.
The God of Torah as Driving Force in Civilization
Modern Traditional Judaism, or Conservative Judaism, had as its distinguishing and founding principle the idea that in studying our own history, law, philosophy — in studying Judaism altogether — we should use the same “scientific” or academic tools we use to study everything else. When you crossed the yeshiva with the university, you got Conservative Judaism. At its inception, Conservative Judaism was sometimes called “scientific Judaism.” God gave you a brain. Use it.
When we understand ourselves in this way, we not only understand more clearly the ancient texts, but we see the awesome development over the ages. Judaism is not like a museum display but more like a motion picture. It is not a stone, it is a tree, a living tree, an eitz hayyim, something that changes, and grows, but maintains a continuous identity, a developing, living sacred civilization.
Some people are disturbed by the Torah and God in the Torah. Those authors who rail against God point to the cruel, backward, unjust attributes of the God of the Old Testament, to use the Christian terminology. Genocide, sexism, slavery, animal sacrifice, capital punishment – all of these are social institutions permitted in the books of the Hebrew Bible.
Let me suggest three perspectives that may help keep you from throwing your Torah out the window. These are three ideas that can help answer many of the challenges you hear to the God of Israel, or answer the criticism of Judaism in general.
First, the Torah usually states the minimums of human decency, not the highest ideal. When the Torah prescribes leaving the corners of our fields for the poor, it was setting a minimum. When it prescribed rights of slaves, it was setting a minimum.
Second, Torah is developmental, part of an evolutionary process. It is a teaching for an evolving society. From the time we were commanded to stop sacrificing to idols, it took over a thousand year for such sacrifice to cease in Israel. As Maimonides observes, and as we all know, “human society changes slowly” (Guide part 3). As we learned from the case of the daughters of Zelophehad (as our darshanim Paula Hyman and Mark Oppenheimer explained so clearly recently), with respect to the status of women, the Torah law set in motion social and legal processes that over time lead to higher ideals. In the case of slavery, the Torah set in motion an internal dynamic which eventually made slavery obsolete. When the Torah prescribed rights for war captives, it was incrementally improving the situation, it was introducing a new step. The Torah is a teaching that directs the evolution of civilization, not one that imposes a utopia. The Torah stretched the imagination and the sensibilities of society when it was first given, and it continues to challenge us today. In most respects, most of world society has not yet reached the minimum levels of decency prescribed by our Torah.
There are a thousand times in the Shulhan Arukh, the sixteenth-century law code that serves as a common basis for modern Jewish law — there are a thousand times that it says, “ we used to do that, but ha`idna nowadays we do this,” and it often states a reason for the change. The world changes, society changes, technology changes, and what we must do to comply with Jewish law changes.
If the Torah had been given in America 150 years ago, and said that men and women should be equal in all areas of society, that women should be doctors and lawyers and hold public office, the people would not have accepted it. It was just not within the imagination of the masses. The Torah could not have done that.
Third, as is stated in the Talmud, and repeated by numerous luminaries such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides, the Torah is expressed inherently in human language. This mean that all of its values and laws were subject to the cultural and linguistic norms of its day. It cannot speak of things people did not understand, but could only move us in a direction.
Judaism is a civilization. We can talk about a “Jewish religion” if we want, but that really misses the point. Judaism is a civilization based on a continuous narrative and literature, a system of law under development for about 3,500 years, a rubric of mitzvot as a social structure, a constellation of core values under continuous evolution, and a self-conscious history that includes development and change. The teaching of this is called “Torah,” of which the scroll by that name is just a part.
God: Quite the Character
Who is this God of Israel?
In part, God is a literary character. God is a “personality” in our sacred stories. What I am telling you is important and profound. You don’t realize that because you’re Jewish, you think it is normal, it is unremarkable. I am telling you that it is important and profound. Let’s set aside the question of where you think the Humash comes from, and look at another genre of literature, rabbinic midrash.
In midrash – the folklore and commentary published over the ages – God appears as a character, God speaks in these stories.
One such example of probably thousands is the following well-known midrash from the Talmud:
Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah he found the Holy One sitting affixing taggim (ornaments) to the letters. He said to the Holy One: “Master of the Universe, what’s holding you up?” Said the Holy One: “Someday there will be a certain man several generations hence by the name of Rabbi Aqiva who will expound upon each minute detail of Torah and Law, even on these ornaments.” Moses said to the Holy One: “Master of the Universe, I’d love to see that!” The Holy One said: “Go back behind you and take a look.” He went back and sat at the end of 18 rows [in the academy of Rabbi Aqiva] but did not understand what they were saying. He was overcome with grief. Just then the class arrived at a certain subject and his disciples asked Aqiva: “Rabbi, whence do you know this?” He said to them: “It is the law from Moses on Sinai.” Moses was then pleased (Menahot 29b).
Traditions — and I’m talking about law, not just recipes for matsa balls — traditions and laws can change so much in the course of time that they can be completely unrecognizable as the same traditions! But in the story, Moses was contented. Change is part of tradition. The story says something essential about Jewish law. But equally striking, and the reason I retell this midrash from the Talmud, is the theology of the story. Whoever wrote this story had no reservations against using God as a character in his story, no problem in attributing statements to God, no qualms about putting words in God’s mouth. Please understand how remarkable this is. Other societies do not openly, admittedly, self-consciously, unabashedly, explicitly make up stuff that God says. They have to say that God “Really” said it. They have to say that if you had a videocamera, you could have recorded it. Rabbi Yehuda and Rav don’t need the author of The God Delusion or God: The Failed Hypothesis to tell them that their God is not real. These sages know that their stories are true and authentic because they made them up themselves.
Oh, God! with George Burns — only Jewish comedians could get away with that. If we made a comedy out of Christ’s life, or death, it would inspire pogroms. If we put words in Mohammad’s mouth, peace be upon him, or Allah’s, they’d issue a fatwa against us. Even the somewhat Christological Bruce Almighty begins with a play on a Jewish concept — as we say, “barukh hu, u-varukh shemo — Blessed be He, and Barukh (or, Bruce) is His name.” Only Jews do that.
When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time encouraging my peers to not participate in the newly-revived Selective Service registry, which was an expression of my political philosophy in general and my opposition to the US threat to send troops to support the Taliban in Afghanistan in particular. (The same Taliban the US sent troops, 20 years later, to overthrow.)
I spoke with over three hundred 17 or 18 year olds about their reasons for registering, or not registering. One of the most memorable was a fellow from outside of the cities, whom I had never seen before or since, who said at the outset that he was registering because God had told him to. Well, that was a real conversation stopper. I wished him luck. I couldn’t bring myself to argue with that. Today, though, I might have answered him by saying, “That’s funny, because God told me that you should not.”
It is easy for us to see in other religions the extent to which human projection and wishful thinking is responsible for their notions of God. Religion is often a response to the vicissitudes and suffering of life, as well as a tool of the powerful to retain their power. When non-Jewish people declare their leaders prophets or deities, we dismiss it as foolishness or deception.
When we realize that this happens to others, we should be able to recognize that the same process happens among the Jewish People as well and shapes our image of God.
Our sages knew that such “voices” in our day are usually either chicanery or the sign of mental illness. People create God, that is, make up what God says. For that reason, the sages ruled that we do not listen to heavenly voices (Bava Metsia 59ab and elsewhere) even if we hear them ourselves; certainly we do not listen to those that others claim to hear. With all of the false prophets and false messiahs — and we have had our share — the rabbis had to take a stand. They essentially banned prophecy, or more precisely, prohibited us from adhering to contemporary purported prophecy.
God as King
In our prayer book, we speak about God as “king” and God’s sovereignty, or God’s rule, as something we wish for. This does not mean imposing Biblical rules that require us to execute people who gather sticks on Saturday or require childless widows to marry their brothers-in-law. Rather, in the idiom of the rabbis, God as king means that no ruler on earth can claim to be God or God’s representative, that every ruler or government must be subject to some higher authority. For the rabbis, God’s sovereignty means that the rule of law prevails, and that decisions are made by courts or by kings subject to the courts and the law of the land. Understood properly, the Jewish notion of God’s rule, like the notion of God, is meant as a tool to challenge and subvert false, oppressive and undemocratic governments. We could only express and develop better society through the existing language and concepts. Language limits, and determines, how we can think and speak about God and God’s involvement in our world. Calling God “King” is not creating a new concept; it is modifying, and improving, an existing one.
How We Perceive the World
When we view a movie in a theatre, we are actually seeing a projection of numerous still photos or images, which change rapidly. Typically, about 24 frames (that is, still photos) are projected each second. But our minds “connect the dots,” as it were, and we perceive a motion picture. There is actually no real motion. Our minds create a movie from a series of still photo projections. Our understanding of the world is exactly like this. It is limited by, or determined by, the way our brains work.
In the same way, we create, in our own minds, an image of God from the writings of Scripture and the teachings of our sages, as well as from our own life experiences.
Most adults consider children’s understanding of the world to be limited much the same way. We go through a process of emerging and advancing consciousness.
Our ability to understand our world is great compared to that of a dog, and incomparably vast compared to that of a worm. It is said that 500 million years ago, the most advanced life form on Earth was a multicellular worm. As humanity continues to evolve, someday people will reach new levels of consciousness and understanding, such that they will look back at us as primitive and limited. There must be higher levels of awareness, higher levels of clarity and consciousness, that future generations, or other beings, can achieve.
If God, or a higher intelligence if you will, were to communicate with us, it could only be in the simplest of terms. How can you communicate with a dog or with a worm? It would be like trying to plug a 6-volt bulb into 120-volt household current: It would blow out the circuit. Our understanding of God is so limited.
An ant looking at a wall sees what to him or her must be the entire universe. Little does that ant know about what there is beyond. Our perspective on God is so narrow.
This precise idea was expressed long ago in midrash about the event at Sinai. In one version, God begins to utter the Ten Commandments but due to phase difference, due to the different voltage as it were, everyone standing around is instantly incinerated. (Since the story doesn’t end there, God has to undo that destruction.) In another version, God utters, aloud, only the first word, “Anokhi — I”; and in another version, God utters, aloud, only the first letter of the first word — the letter ﬡ alef. That is, according to rabbinic legend, the entirety of what was actually heard at Sinai — the part you could capture on your videocamera — was God sounding the letter ﬡ alef. In Hebrew, the ﬡ alef is silent.
The Torah can only stretch the minds of its readers and followers, but cannot try to vastly exceed our capacity for understanding. For that reason, every representation of God in Torah is limited by what the human mind can comprehend. The limitations are partly biological and partly cultural. If the God of Torah is not created by the human mind, that God is perceived and thereby shaped and edited by the human mind. It could not be otherwise.
God We Suppose
At the same time, there are certain experiences that cause some people to suppose that there must be a great Force in the universe. For me, contemplating the wonders of the cosmos and the quantum, the miracle of life and love, and my own consciousness (not to mention yours), provides an inescapable intuition that there is something big going on that I do not comprehend. For lack of a better name, I call that force, that repository of meaning, “Creator,” “Merciful One,” “Holy One,” “Powerful One,” “Almighty” or simply “God.” Whatever that Force was that made the miracle of my life and consciousness (not to mention the rest of the universe), I call “Creator.” God created Man (me for sure, you probably).
Three things there are, together in my eye
That keep the thought of Thee forever nigh.
I think about Thy great and holy name
Whenever I look up and see the sky.
My thoughts are roused to know how I was made,
Seeing the earth’s expanse, where I abide.
The musings of my mind, when I look inside –
At all times, “O my soul, bless Adonai.”
Solomon Ibn Gabirol (11th century)
translated by Raymond P. Scheindlin in The Gazelle
Why the God of Israel
Now, I promised you that I would tell you why I am a fan of the God of Israel.
The God of the Torah provided Divine authority for the dignity of labor, the sanctity of human life, equality before the law, and due process.
The God of Israel said, “Qedoshim tihyu” — “You shall be holy” — not by clapping your hands or speaking in tongues, not by ecstatic dancing or incantations or holy wars — You shall be holy by being honest in business, refusing to take advantage of others, by being faithful to your loved ones, by being fair, generous and caring (see Lev. 19-20, the Torah reading for Yom Kippur Afternoon).
The God of Israel – who, in the old days, had a lot of competition — said to Pharoah, “Let My People Go.”
The God of the Torah said, despite the power of the cattle lobby, which was like the NRA in its day — God said, “What need have I of all of your animal sacrifices?”
The God of Israel told the human what is good, and what is required: “Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
This is a God I can devote my life to serve. This is the God of Israel.
LeShana Tova Tikatevu — May The Force be with you.
©Jon-Jay Tilsen, September 2007