By Rabbi Michael Berk
Brett Butler, the comedienne, not the baseball player, was interviewed by David Letterman after the Northridge earthquake many years ago. She said: “Do you know how you could tell the difference between the Christians and the Jews? The Christians were running around saying, ‘Oh my God; O my God!’ And the Jews were running around saying, “This i need?!”
We Jews can be very ambivalent about our belief in God. What other religion has a traditional scholar as we do in David Hartman, may he rest in peace, who famously said, “I love God. I just don’t trust him.” Some of us believe in God; and even we who believe in God have our credulity strained. Many of us want to offer up a prayer like Ernest Renan’s: “God, if there is a God, take my soul, if I have a soul.”
It goes without saying that belief in God is a complex thing. So, to get at what I think may be the heart of the matter, I’d like to quote a great woman who died a little over a month ago, Joan Rivers. As most of you know, her humor could be quite crude and she wasn’t exactly fluent in political correctness. Often when someone in the audience let known their offense at something she said, she’d shout back, “Oh, grow up!” Well, my friends, regarding God I say to you, Oh grow up…
Most of us left God around our Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We know the God of our religious school bible stories and holiday celebrations; and every once in a while we hear God being bandied about by fundamentalist politicians. The God of those childhood stories and of those politicians are shallow caricatures of God that many bright, thinking, twenty-first century Jewish adults cannot take too seriously. But just as our relationship with our parents matures as we grow older; so too should our relationship with God. Otherwise it’s not going to help us when we confront what we know we confront in our world: hardships, illness, radical evil.
There’s another obstacle before many of us that stands in the way of faith. Quite frankly, it’s that God is irrelevant. We are able to live our lives, especially in America, quite well without thinking about God. We have lives that are predictable and peaceful beyond the wildest imaginations of most of the people on earth and we can have it all with or without God in our lives. God is not necessary to understand our private worlds.
We don’t need to invoke God to explain natural phenomenon; we understand earthquakes, hurricanes, and lightening through science; and those who see them as manifestations of God’s emotions sound like lunatics to us. We don’t need to fall back on God to understand monsters like the terrorists of Hamas, Hizbollah, ISIS, Al Qaeda, or the dictator of North Korea or Russia, as our ancestors did to understand Pharaoh.
These problems and facts of our lives are obstacles to belief in God. The problem is our expectations of God. We expect God to be theologically absolute. We expect God to be everywhere at the same time; to know everything there is to know about the world and about us. And we expect God to be able to do anything, because God is all powerful. Remember the joke that went around years ago about a boy who comes home from Sunday school and his mother asks what he learned. He spoke about the liberation of the Jews, but the version he told credited the Israeli Defense Forces with freeing the Jews. When his mother questioned the story, the boy replied, “Look, if I told you what they taught us you really wouldn’t believe it.”
In the language of religion, these theological absolutes are called ubiquity, omniscience, and omnipotence; and they have a long and revered history in both Judaism and Christianity. Let’s talk about one of these attributes for a moment: omnipotence. God is omnipotent, all-powerful. God can do anything, from making the world to parting the Sea of Reeds to defeating Israel’s enemies single-handedly. I’ll never forget the woman in my congregation who had a bizarre disease which caused horrible blotches all over her face. The doctors were stumped — that she could understand. But what really pained her was the nagging question, why didn’t God cure her? We can also ask: why did she think God could take away her disease? Why do people believe God is all-powerful?
Whatever its origins, the requirement of omnipotence has created huge difficulties and gross disappointment. When this attribute is coupled with belief in God’s utter moral goodness, another theological absolute, then we’re faced with the problem of evil, or theodicy, as theologians call it. How can a God who is both morally good and all-powerful let a baby die? How could a God who embodies perfect goodness and is able to save people stand by and let my step-mother die of cancer a year and a half after spending twelve years taking care of my father after his massive stroke? What kind of God is it that takes two sons from their mother in a span of weeks? Is there really a God who is happy when one human being beheads another? Can a God’s moral sensibilities be that different from ours? Each of us has experiences which cry out for compassion or justice or fairness — only to be met by cosmic, bone-chilling silence. No one in this room has lived a life that has not or will not challenge a belief in God’s omnipotence and goodness.
The truth is, many deep and profound thinkers have found God’s omnipotence to be a self-contradictory and senseless belief. Allow me to illustrate. Can God do that which is logically absurd? Could God create a circle that is really a square? Can God design a triangle with four sides? Can God create a rock so heavy God couldn’t lift it? Here’s a good one: could God create a second deity equally as powerful as God is?
So what can we say about God? According to Maimonides, the great Jewish thinker, perhaps the greatest Jewish thinker, given the limitations of our minds and our language, the only proper way to speak about God is in negation. We can really only say what God is not; for if we try to speak of what God is, then we limit God and commit an act of arrogance. But, if we cannot talk intelligibly about God, we can talk about ourselves. After all, we know ourselves better than we know anything else. We can talk about our feelings, our thoughts, and our experiences. And we can talk about these things with respect to God. Maybe I cannot talk much about God’s being and activities and thoughts, but I can talk about my experiences with God, about my feelings about God, and about my thoughts about God. All this describes my experiences with God, but leaves alone the issue of God’s being.
I experience God in much the same way as I experience people. I experience people in terms of the relationships in which I engage them. I experience Aliza as my loving and forgiving wife; I experience Stan Frochtzwajg as my dear friend; Yoni and Jenna as my loving son and daughter, all of you as my bosses. This repertoire of relationships gives me the building blocks for describing my relationship with God. I experience God based on my experiences in other relationships that I have. And how could it be otherwise? How could I describe a relationship with God without falling back on the vocabulary of other relationships I have known?
This approach to God-talk is the way Jews have always talked about God, especially in the conversation known as prayer. We pray in the language of metaphors. We refer to God constantly in terms that touch us in different ways. We live in societies with kings and presidents and prime ministers, so we call God, “Ruler of the Universe.” Our ancestors tended sheep and knew the loving and yet strong way that sheep need to be watched and herded. So do we, so we call God “my Shepherd.” There are lots of rocks in Israel, and our sages and poets saw animals take shelter in them; they saw people seek their shade; they saw that those stones were immovable in great storms. So, we call God our “Rock and our Redeemer.” In fact, Jewish God-talk found in our prayer books is almost exclusively based on relationships that people have with each other.
To be sure, these metaphors in Judaism are hierarchical and patriarchal. God is conceived in masculine and sovereign terms. Over the last three decades we in the Reform Movement have incorporated in our liturgy more inclusive, egalitarian imagery. Right now, I want to take a look at one of those masculine metaphors so prominent in our High Holy Day prayer: God as Avinu Malkeinu; literally, our Father, Our King.
For many of us this phrase is a huge problem. That’s why some modern prayerbook editors have left the phrase untranslated to help us avoid thinking of God in strictly masculine terms. But honestly, while you’ll see that I can live with the image of God as father, I really don’t experience God as a king very much. First of all, I have never met a king; and secondly, I have never lived in a monarchy. I’m not one of those Americans, for example, who knows exactly how far along Princess Kate is in her pregnancy. I know intellectually that the image of king is supposed to inspire a sense of transcendent power and awe and majesty over and above me. But really, I don’t experience God that way.
But, I do experience God as father; and this is a metaphor that moves me deeply and helps me describe my relationship to God. Many people think of God as father to underscore God’s mean, strict, and punitive side. But for me and I think for our sages as well, God as father means something else. When I experience God as Father, I feel God’s love, compassion, and forgiveness. And yet, I feel it in a distinctly masculine way. I feel God gently prodding me and providing me with rules, even as God protects me and consoles me. Do you know that according to the rabbinic imagination, when God first spoke to Moses God made His voice sound just like the voice of Moses’s father so as not to frighten him? And that at Sinai, in order not to scare the people, each person heard God’s voice not as Cecil B. DeMille’s, but as the voice of his or her own father.
My God, as a father figure, has hopes and expectations for me. I have learned from God about worthy goals for my life, and the good way in which I should choose to live. I feel as though God, like any loving parent, really wants me to succeed at life. Since I feel loved, since I feel a special and warm fatherly love, I wish to please God and I feel sad and disappointed with myself when I fall short of God’s hopes and dreams for me. And I know that if I am honest, if I admit when I am wrong and commit to doing better, I also have confidence that my loving God will forgive me and take me back in love.
I also struggle with God as father. My own father, a product of his generation, was sparse with words that conveyed his love. He spoke those words by the long days he worked to provide for us; the sacrifices he made so we might make something of our lives that he didn’t accomplish. So just as I longed to hear from his mouth of my father’s love, and though I knew he loved me even if he didn’t speak of it, it hurt to wonder; to not hear the love spoken; to not feel the hand lovingly on my face.
It’s not too different from God. I know of God’s love. I am grateful to God for the blessings I’ve experienced despite being unworthy. And yet I too sometimes long for the surer sense of God’s presence; some moment of feeling the touch. Some experience of great clarity that God is with me. I long for that feeling I see on the faces of some who seems so closely connected to God that they emit an aura of spirituality. And it is that longing that keeps me coming back to synagogue.
For me, the words, “Avinu, Malkeinu” are so powerful. They stir something deep and intimate within me. The holydays, with their constant repetitions of Avinu Malkeinu remind me that my life, sullied though it may be with my own weakness, my own failures, my own sins, my life is no less precious to my loving Parent in heaven than my children’s lives are to me. And though I may not hear God tell me, I love you, I know God does love me.
This is what I think your God wants you to know about Him today: you are God’s beloved child, locked in embrace with the One who never abandons you, who believes in you, who will nurture you to wholeness during the Ten Days of Repentance, if you will return to Him. God may not be able to keep harm and illness and a broken heart from you, just as your parents couldn’t. But like a parent, God is there for you and God has given you the spiritual tools you need to cope with the challenges life will inevitably throw your way.
It has been said that faith is like a toothbrush. Everyone should have one and use it regularly. But, you shouldn’t use someone else’s. May these holy and awesome days bring you an experience of God that bathes you in renewal, refreshment, and faith. Ken yehi ratzon. may this be God’s will. Amen.