I (don't) believe in God


A few years ago, a big study of American Jews came out and some people were shocked to discover that about one thirid of American Jews don’t believe in God.

Other people were shocked to discover that that there were two-thirds of American Jews who do believe in God.

The sentence - “I believe in God” or for that matter, the sentence, “I don’t believe in God” is a beguiling one.

It seems to be a simple, straightforward sentence. Structurally, it’s the same as “I play baseball” or “I don’t like jazz.”

But that sentence about believing in God is anything but straightforward. Who is this I who is speaking, what does it possibly mean to believe, what or who is the God in question?

So first, who are we? Who is the “I” who does or doesn’t believe?

This seems to be the simplest question. I am Brent Chaim Spodek; you are Joe Smith.

But of course, many of us, including me, change our names when we get married, or for other reasons. Our name is not our definition.

At some level, we are our bodies - our physical, corporeal selves. We know this because when we are ill, we don't feel like ourselves. Conversely, we’re not entirely our bodies either - when we speak to a friend on the phone, we can bring our self to be present, even when our body is not.

In important and complicated ways, we are ourselves because of our relations with others. The brains of prisoners who are tortured through solitary confinement literally shrink, particularly in the areas that govern memory.  Without connections to others, the self literally atrophies.

The social scientist Professor Brene Brown says, “...connection is... what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.... what we know is that the ability to feel connected, is, in terms of neurobiology, how we're wired -- it's why we're here.” 

We become ourselves in a matrix of relations and community; we are who we are because of the invisible lines of connection that link us, one to another.

More to the point, who we are changes over time.

Dr. Francis Collins, for instance, is the director of the National Institutes of Health. As he describes it, when he was doing graduate work in quantum mechanics at Yale, he was confident that all of this stuff about religion and faith was “a carryover from an earlier, irrational time, and now that science had begun to figure out how things really work, we didn't need it anymore.” Yet things started changing and shifting for Collins, and he writes that after about a year of writing and thinking about matters of the soul, he was spending an afternoon hiking in the Cascade Mountains, where the remarkable beauty of creation was so overwhelming, that he felt, "I cannot resist this another moment. This is something I have really longed for all my life without realizing it, and now I've got the chance to say yes."

For Collins, fidelity to his shifting sense of self had real costs.  In addition to leading NIH, he has led the Human Genome Project and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. Yet he is routinely described as “an embarrassment with awful reasoning,” because he is a serious Christian.

Alternately, Shulem Deen was born into the Hasidic world of Boro Park and raised in New Square, a hasidic village about 40 minutes and a million miles from here. He was married at 18, and he was already the father of five children when he started having doubts about the life he was living. In his extraordinary memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, he wrote of being on vacation and sitting in a communal dining room with his wife and children, “looking at all the other families from all over—New York, New Jersey, Montreal, families of five, ten, fifteen, men in tall, stiff shtreimels, women wearing their best wigs and elegant Shabbos dresses, children in matching outfits. As waiters in crisp black vests brought trays of sautéed liver and egg salad and chulent, I looked around and wondered: Am I the only nonbeliever here?”

We change over time - we grow and expand, exploring new relationships, discarding old beliefs. The “I” who believes, or doesn’t, changes over time and just as a healthy human relationship is supple, not demanding that we be today who we have always been, so too can our spiritual lives accommodate the ways we change over a lifetime.

So we come then to this word “believe.” What does it mean to believe?

We read the story of Moses going up a mountain full of flames and smoke, trembling with the presence of God, the shofar blasts and the voice of James Earl Jones booming out from the heavens saying “I AM GOD.” There is an important rabbinic tradition that we all were there, every one of us who is here this this room and we saw the fire and we smelled the smoke and we heard the voice.

Of course, we weren’t actually there, or at very least, we weren’t there at Sinai in the way that we were in our beds this morning or that I was on Mt. Beacon the other day.

But part of our tradition asks that we believe that we were there and believe that we did hear the voice of God.

For many, this event at Sinai is the event on which all belief hinges.

Some people believe that it happened and believe that voice from Sinai is true and speaks with authority. Other people believe that didn't happen and there is no voice and there is no authority.

When we say that we believe in God or that we don’t, this seems to be the essential question: this event happened - or it didn't.

But that event, with the flaming mountain and the thundering voice is not the only story the Torah asks us to believe.

There is another story told in the Torah of another man who also battles a great enemy and with the help of the Holy One, prevails. This man also splits the sea and also spends 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai and there, he also encounters the Holy One in intimacy.

His name is Elijah. His story sounds a lot like the better known story of Moses, and in fact there is a thread in the tradition that teaches that they are actually the same person.  But as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner  points out, their stories are actually the inverse of each other.

A quick review in case you’re hazy on the details. Elijah had gotten into a conflict with King Ahab and his wife Jezebel and had to run for his life.He ran to Be’e Sheva, and from there, he went up to Sinai. Up there, Elijah heard a great and mighty wind which shattered rocks, but Yah was not in the wind; he felt an earthquake, but Yah was not in the earthquake; he saw a fire, but Yah was not in the fire. You might kno this part - after the fire, there was a קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה - a soft, murmuring voice. And that’s where Yah was to be found.

Now, the text gives us the fire, the earthquake, the shattering rock - all the wham-bam theatrics that we expect from Moses’s revelation and explicitly says that the revelation wasn’t out there - it was in his own heart.

Rashi on that that verse says that the voice “comes from the midst of silence,” and the Zohar teaches that it originates from the “very innermost point which is the source of all illumination.” 

We may or may not believe in that outside voice of thunder and lightning, but what about this inside voice? Can we believe in this private, internal and subjective voice, which is no less a wonder than one which booms from the heavens? Can we believe there is anything deep inside of ourselves worth listening to?

Belief is a funny word. Sometimes we use it to mean we hold something to be true, even if there is no evidence for it - like how my kids believe in the tooth fairy or in ghosts. This is the “belief” that people usually mean when they say they do or don't believe in God.

At another level though, the word “believe” means something closer to “trusting or having confidence.” When we say that we believe that all people have certain, inalienable rights, we mean that we are confident that we all do. When we say we believe in the power of education, we mean that we are confident that if we invest in education, it will yield rewards.

We might not believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus or a man whose voice thunders over the mountains. But can we believe, dare we have confidence, in the still small voice that emanates from inside of us, the private, internal and subjective echo of eternity?

So, we’ve covered “I” and we’ve covered “believe.” I don't have anything to say about the preposition “in,” so that leaves us the loaded and problematic word “God”?

Those who say they believe in God and those who say they don’t are generally talking about the same God - really tall, big beard, sits on a throne, sounds like Darth Vader. It’s the God that we imagine sitting and receiving or rejecting our prayers and managing the world the way a child manages stuffed animals in her room. It’s a god who tells us to do stuff or not do stuff and then rewards us or punishes us accordingly. Put simply, its Zeus.

That’s not the God I believe in. But that’s not the only understanding of God available to us. For sure, it’s one of the metaphors for God, but it’s not even the main metaphor of the Divine in the Jewish tradition.

Imagine, if you will, that you have been assigned to capture the Hudson River. Where do you begin? Should you download a satellite image? Paint a panorama from the top of Storm King? Take a camera and fly high above in a helicopter? Or from the water in a kayak? Under the water with scuba gear? Should the picture be taken today? On a cloudy day?  A sunny day? A year from now?  A year ago?

The Divine, like the river, is a living, pulsing thing. We snap a photograph in a moment and confuse that image, that metaphor, for the thing itself. That’s what idolatry is– mistaking the part for the whole.

All our photographs would capture part of the Hudson River, and none of them would capture all of it. They would all be true and they would all be partial.  There would even be parts captured in no photographs- the smell and taste of the water, the patterns of salinity in the estuary, the sound of its flow. We cannot capture it in its fullness.

Our tradition makes the point more clearly in a text from the Pesikta d’Rav Kahanah that I was privileged to learn with some of you at the Shavuot retreat this past spring:

R. Hiyya bar Abba teaches that the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a teacher who teaches the day’s lesson and then again and again goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man.

This is the meaning of the first commandment: I am YAH, your God: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am the One who was with you at the Red Sea and I am the One who is with you at Sinai: I am the Lord your God. The fact is, R. Hiyya bar Abba said, that The Holy One appears to us in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time.

Me, I believe in the creative force which brought heaven and earth into being. So what? More interesting is through what guises do I perceive that creative force? What are the metaphors through which I try to understand that creative force?

This is part of what our sages meant when they said that a prayer without something new is not prayer.  I can love the same woman my whole life, but just as I change, so does she. The letter I write to her when I am a teenager courting her is not the same letter write when I am a young adventurer, which is not the same letter I will write when she bears our children, which is not the same letter I will write her when we retire, which is not the same letter I will write her when, God willing, we are old and at the end of days.

To hand her a xerox of the same letter year after year would make a mockery of what love is, and so it is with prayer. It is one woman who I love, but the letters change and change again.

Like the many letters to my one wife, which change as the years pass, the prayers I offer to God and the God I imagine receiving them change as time passes. I imagine the Holy One differently in the hospital room than I do on the mountain top, differently in this room than I do in the cemetery. It’s not consistency that I seek, but spiritual nourishment. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously put it, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Yet of all the images that I cycle through, there is one image, one metaphor for the divine that I come back to again and again. The Degel Machane Ephraim, who was a hasidic master and the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, teaches as follows:

In every [little] activity, like eating or drinking or conducting business, there is a force which animates us, and this is אל חי - the God of Life… The very center of nature is the God of Life, and when we sound the shofar, we reveal the God of Life, which is robed in nature.

A few weeks ago, I was camping with my daughter and some friends at North South Lake up in the Catskills. That park is surrounded by towns and villages that have been built by human effort and that park has been protected by human effort. Everything depends on אל חי - the God of Life, and everything depends on human effort.

On Mary’s Glen trail in North South Lake Park, we came to a little waterfall. The water came cascading down these massive slabs of rock, each one about seven feet high, stacked on top of each other.

In a tiny crack between these rocks, there was a little dirt, and on that dirt, there was a little moss, and out of that moss, there was a little plant creeping upwards towards the sun. I stood there and looked at  אל חי - the God of Life, pulsing through the rock, reaching up to turn the sun and dirt and water into life, more life and more life.

This is, I think what the Degel Machane Ephraim was talking about. God is Divine energy, pumping through everything, flourishing where it can, celebrated and helped or ignored and hindered by human effort. The ram’s horn becomes a shofar because of human effort, and that horn is blasted by human effort. When the human and natural meet, the pulsing of El Chai can be revealed or it can be concealed. Everything depends on the Divine pulse of life, and everything depends on human effort.

So we come back now to our original question. Am I – or are any of us – counted among the one third of American Jews who don’t believe in God or the two thirds who do? I’m not sure, and I’m quite sure I don't care.

I know I believe this: The Divine flows through our lives, ever present and ever concealed. It is available for glory and available for disgrace; it is patiently waiting for us to discover it and let it flow more powerfully through us.

The question is not whether we believe in God or we don’t. The question is whether we have found the God that our souls are looking for.

In this coming year, may we all find the God we need.

Shana tova.

This teaching was originally offered at Beacon Hebrew Alliance on Rosh Hashona, September 14, 2015. For more of Rabbi Spodek's teachings, click here. To support Beacon Hebrew Alliance, please click here.