Yom Kippur AM Do Jews Believe in G-d?

Yom Kippur Morning
October 10, 2008
Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph
A rabbi is always entertaining interesting questions about the Jewish religion from his congregants and others. In fact, when one is introduced as a rabbi, people are often moved to ask a question they have been wondering about for a long time. Do Jews believe in the afterlife? Do Jews believe in angels? But nobody has ever asked me the question upon which today's sermon is based — Do Jews believe in G-d?

After reading today's Torah portion one would think that belief in G-d is a fundamental belief of Jews everywhere. In today’s Torah portion we read how Aaron performed the very first Yom Kippur ritual, asking forgiveness for his sins, the sins of his family and those of all of Israel from an all-knowing G-d. In our prophetic portion, Isaiah questioned the sincerity and usefulness of these ritual sacrifices in a society where people did not behave ethically. In both selections, the sense of G-d is palpable. Late last year a Harris poll asked Americans if they were absolutely certain that G-d exists. 76% of Protestants and 64% of Catholics replied that they were certain of G-d's existence. 93% of Protestant evangelicals replied that they were absolutely certain that G-d exists. But among the Jews in this nationwide survey, only 30% replied that they were absolutely certain that G-d exists. [let this sink in]. The contemporary American rabbi, Harold Shulweis divided the Jewish world into three parts. Rabbi Shulweis said that they prayed in different ways. The traditional Jew prays "Shma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad." The atheist prays: "Shma Yisrael I deny Eloheinu I deny Ehad." The agnostic recites: "Shma Yisrael I dunno Eloheinu I dunno Ehad." The fact that 30% of Jews say that they have an absolute certainlty that there is a G-d, begs another question — what is it that people mean when they say "G-d"? Rabbi Neil Gillman, a theologian at the Jewish Theological Seminary once said, "When someone says they cannot believe in G-d, I ask them to describe the G-d that they cannot believe in.” Rabbi Gillman continues, “Most of the time I can't believe in that G-d either." Perhaps more people would believe in the certainty of G-d if they could describe a G-d they actually could believe in. Rabbi Shulweis talks about an exercise that he does with his students. He writes in a column on his blackboard: G-d is just, G-d is merciful, G-d feeds the hungry, G-d is forgiving, G-d healing the sick, G-d protects the innocent. Then he asks his class how many believe that. Only a few people raise their hands. The discussion that follows includes questions such as — How could G-d be just when so many innocent people suffer in the world, how can I believe G-d feeds the hungry when so many people are starving — what about the Holocaust, what about Darfur. Then Shulweis writes a second column on the board, next to the first one. This time he writes: Justice is G-dly, feeding the hungry is G-dly, forgiveness is G-dly, healing the sick is G-dly, protecting the innocent is G-dly. Then he asks the class how many of them believe that? Many hands go up. You see, when people experience themselves as passive recipients of G-d's beneficence, they have difficulty believing in G-d. But when they understand that G-d works in the world in partnership with humanity, they are much more likely to have certainty that there is definitely "Godliness" in the world. In the first instance, as in the Abraham story, G-d is a commander. We wait for G-d to reach out, to save us. As it says throughout our High Holiday liturgy, G-d is King. In the second instance, G-d is a source from which we draw strength and inspiration to make our world better. G-d does not work on us, G-d works through us. G-d is in the farmers plow, the nurses hands, the teacher's patience, the consoling words to the mourner. If you want to find G-d, according to this idea, don't look only above you, look inside yourself, look around you. I recently read in the newspaper the story of Avichai Kremer. Kremer arrived at Harvard Business School four years ago at the age of 29. He was born in Haifa, served in the Israeli military as a captain, and graduated fromt eh Technion. He worked at a high technology defense firm before landing at Harvard. In his first semester at Harvard, Kremer was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. This disease destroys muscle control while leaving the mind intact. There are over 30,000 people who suffer with this disease in the US, and 350,000 world wide. Yet because patients deteriorate fairly quickly, and because there are relatively few of them compared to those afflicted with other diseases, pharmaceutical companies consider an investment in finding a cure to be a risky venture. So Kremer enlisted his Harvard Business school community to help raise money for Gehrig’s disease research. They raised over $2 million and spawned research in 6 Israeli universities where no research existed before. In June 2006 they launched Prize4life, a non-profit that offers cash awards for new treatments. Kremer says, "I believe that there is a plan, a destiny, a calling that I take part in," . That is what Shulweis means when he says that G-d works in partnership with people. To Shulweis, and to many others, this is an example of how G-d manifests Himself to us. Another reason why so many Jews do not believe with certainty that there is a G-d might be because we come from a long line of G-d wrestlers. True, Abraham accepted G-d's commandment to sacrifice his son — yet earlier in his life he had the hutzpah to question G-d over whether Sodom and Gomorrah should be destroyed. Abraham, after all, resisted the notion that he and Sarah could have a child in their old age. Jacob wrestles with an angel of G-d on the bank of the River Jabok. Moses argues with G-d, and the Israelites whine and complain for forty years about how G-d is treating them. They seem to forget the good that G-d has done for them — the liberation from slavery, the signs and wonders G-d performed on their behalf — and focus on the problems and discomforts of their lives, all of which they blame on G-d. We come from a tradition that asks questions – and never settles for the easy answer. We are more likely to question the existence of G-d, and leave the question unanswered, or leave it with multiple answers, like those maddening rabbis of the Talmud. We answer a question with a question. As Eli Wiesel expressed it, “A Jew can love G-d or a Jew can hate G-d. But a Jew cannot ignore G-d." Finally, the lack of certainty about the existence of G-d might be a sign that we take G-d seriously. The recent revelation that Mother Theresa herself questioned the presence of G-d in her life was widely interpreted by Catholic theologians as proof of her deep faith. Nearly 100 years ago, Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, made the same point. To look at the world, he said – with all of its violence, suffering, injustice, poverty, hunger and darkness – and NOT experience at least a flicker of doubt – was itself a sin, because it demonstrated a hardened and indifferent heart. In light of the human condition, said Rav Kook, having serious doubts about G-d's presence or existence is not only acceptable – it is a sign of an insightful, caring and empathic soul. So do Jews believe in G-d? Perhaps the complicated relationship some Jews have with G-d can be summed up in the following true story, told by Abraham Joshua Heshel in his book A Passion for Truth. “My friend,” he writes, “an important Jewish official in post war Poland, was boarding a train when he saw a sickly, poor Jew outside. He invited the man to share his comfortable train compartment. My friend tried to engage him in conversation, but he would not talk. Come evening my friend prayed, but the fellow did not pray. The following morning, my friend took out his prayer shawl and tefillin and said his prayers. The other fellow, looking wretched and somber, said not a word and did not pray. Finally, when the day was almost over, they started a conversation. The fellow said, “I am never going to pray again because of what happened in Aushwitz. How could I pray? That is why I did not pray all day.” The following morning, my friend noticed the fellow taking out his prayer shawl and phylacteries and starting to pray! He asked the man afterward, “What made you change your mind?” The fellow said, “It suddenly dawned upon me how lonely G-d must be; look with whom he is left! I felt sorry for Him.”