Author Archives: Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe

About Rabbi David Wolpe

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and the author of several books on Jewish belief.

Is God Listening?

Reprinted with permission from Beliefnet.com.

Sixteen years ago, my mother suffered a debilitating stroke. All four of her sons prayed that she might live and recover. Although she lived, her recovery was partial, and she continues to suffer serious aftereffects, including aphasia. Did God answer our prayers?

The theological optimist would reply, “Of course. God answered, ‘Yes, I will let your mother live.'” But what if my mother had not had four children? What if we had decided not to pray? Would God have let her die? If we assume that God answers prayers, we must assume that had the prayers not been offered, there would be no answer. What would have become of my mother if one morning I had decided not to pray, or been distracted, or simply apathetic? It is hard to believe that God would have made my mother suffer because her sons did not pray. Yet if not offering our prayers would have made no difference, then why pray in the first place?

Unanswered Prayers

More powerfully yet, what of the prayers, worthy prayers, desperate prayers, that go unanswered? The traditional, glib response is, “God answered. He said no!” That flip rejoinder is satisfactory if the prayer is for a new bicycle; but prayers are often the product of true anguish. “God said no” sounds not clever but callous if the plea is that God spare a child suffering from cancer. Then “no” begins to sound more like the absence of God than a response from God.

god prayerYet what can we make of prayer if it does not work in the world? How do we still maintain the worthiness of religious traditions if God does not swoop down to remove our tumors and raise our bowed lives?

Some point to recent research demonstrating that prayer has a medical benefit. But this research is a dangerous, even destructive tool for religion to wield. First, the results are contradictory. Second, if we take our stand on empirical studies, we are confounded when tomorrow a more thorough study comes along disproving the previous research. Faith should not be placed on the statisticians’ operating table.

Speaking to God

Reprinted with permission of the author from
The Healer of Shattered Hearts: A Jewish View of God
(Henry Holt).

The Rabbis call prayer the service of the heart. The sac­rificial metaphor (for “service” in the phrase above recalls the service and sacrifices of the Temple) is suggestive. Jew­ish prayer is built upon the idea that an offering is being made to God. Something is being given–the fervor and fullness of our souls. “One’s prayer is not heeded,” says the Talmud, “unless God is approached with one’s heart in one’s hands” (Taanit 8a).

prayer quizPrayer is the complete act of the human spirit, touching all the faculties–intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and even physical (in the prescribed motions of prayer). Such an offering is intended to be complete, the worshipers placing themselves on a metaphorical altar, putting themselves “on the line” in the hopes of acceptance.

Is God Listening?

One difference between prayer and human communica­tion is the assurance of God’s acceptance, if not God’s as­sent. The tradition accepts that God will embrace any prayer that is offered willingly and fervently.

This does not make prayer easy. For if the assurance of acceptance is one difference between human and Divine communication, the other difference is the uncertainty of response. We cannot know if anyone is listening. Is prayer truly a dialogue, or only a monologue? Any response in our lives to prayer is erratic at best. At times it is tempting to believe that something has been granted in answer to our request. In more sober moments we realize, however, that prayers do not appear to be answered in this world, that far too much is faithfully asked for and not given. If what we ask for is not granted, can we still maintain there is “re­sponse”?

Only inside can we feel if there is any reply. No activity in the world can conclusively demonstrate dialogue. Per­haps in the subjective chambers of the individual soul one may conclude that there was communication, but it is highly personal and ever uncertain. Everyone who prays struggles with the deep fear that this time, the only answer will be absence, silence.

Putting Stones on Jewish Graves

Reprinted with permission from Wrestling with the Angel: Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, edited by Jack Riemer (published by Schocken Books).

The final scene in the movie Schindler’s List is puzzling. Survivors and their cinematic offspring file by the grave of Oskar Schindler. With solemn ceremony, they place stones on the grave. Why should they leave stones rather than flowers? From where does this strange custom come?

The practice of burying the dead with flowers is almost as old as humanity. Even in prehistoric caves some burial sites have been found with evidence that flowers were used in interment. But Jew­ish authorities have often objected to bringing flowers to the grave. There are scattered talmudic mentions of spices and twigs used in burial (Berakhot 43a, Betzah 6a). Yet the prevailing view was that bringing flowers smacks of a pagan custom.

That is why today one rarely sees flowers on the graves in tra­ditional Jewish cemeteries. Instead there are stones, small and large, piled without pattern on the grave, as though a community were being haphazardly built. Walking in the military cemetery of Jerusalem, for example, one can see heaps of stones on the graves of fallen soldiers, like small fortresses.

For most of us, stones conjure a harsh image. It does not seem the appropriate memorial for one who has died. But stones have a special character in Judaism. In the Bible, an altar is no more than a pile of stones, but it is on an altar that one offers to God. The stone upon which Abraham takes his son to be sacrificed is called even hashityah, the foundation stone of the world. The most sacred shrine in Judaism, after all, is a pile of stones–the wall of the Second Temple.

Outer Faith & Inner Faith

Many people would dispute Wolpe’s assumption that God’s presence in the world is different today than it has been in the past. But for those who do struggle with what may seem to be God’s silence in today’s world, Wolpe offers a poignant and thought-provoking rumination on faith in the modern world. Reprinted with permission from Beliefnet.com.

The traditional image of faith is that it descends upon us from mountaintops. In the Bible, Moses walks down from Sinai, tablets in hand. He is the standard bearer of a God who has liberated the Israelites from Egypt. The Israelites are busy at the moment with the Golden Calf. They have turned their back on God, doubted his providence and protection–but they do not doubt that God exists. 

God has been a powerful presence in the Israelites’ lives. We read of a deity who is manifest in the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Faith is an acceptance of something that is so overpoweringly evident that only a fool could doubt. Israel may misbehave. They may flout God’s law. They may even doubt that God cares for them. But to doubt God’s existence, or seek God in subtleties, is not the biblical reality. God is present, undeniable, overwhelming.

Today the theological ground has shifted. The discoveries of science have limited God’s arena of power; hospitals replace altars as foci of healing. Archeology probes into the truth of biblical accounts. The horrors of history put a strain on faith in God’s fashioning a benevolent world. The recognition of the variety of cultures shakes confidence in the certainty of one’s own truths.

When we speak of miracles today we speak of naturalistic miracles, not of splitting seas or suns standing still. The skies no longer speak to us. Faith is not the manifest certainty of the supernatural. It arises from within rather than being imposed from without.

Faith is something we are taught to locate inside ourselves. We will see the world a certain way if we have faith, we are told. We can even locate God inside ourselves. But how impoverished and inadequate such an idea would be to our ancestors. To see God inside oneself when God is the author of the universe, the Creator of all?

How to Talk to Your Kids About God

Reprinted with permission from JewishFamily.com.

Even parents who tell their children that they can ask them about “anything” often change the subject when children ask about God. And they do ask.

“Who are God’s parents?” “If God is so powerful, why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening?” “Does God hear my prayers?” The questions are legion. In essence, they are the same questions that parents ask, although in another form. But they are questions we must address. After all, who among us is satisfied to give our children an intellectual, but not a spiritual education?

talking to kid about god

Our answers to these questions guide our children’s view of the universe. What do we wish them to believe, that they are accidents of ancient chemistry or sparks of the divine? Whatever one’s philosophy on these matters, we owe our children an honest and searching discussion.

Talking to children about God is a key component of their sense of self. Children are taught that they are important, but why are they important? Ask your children why they matter. I have asked thousands of children “why are you important.” The usual answers are “I get good grades, I am good at sports, I have a nice job/boyfriend/girlfriend, my parents love me.” All these answers spell trouble, because they are all based on something human, and everything human can change. Are we always going to be the brightest in the class, or have that boyfriend or feel our parents’ love? Do you really want your child’s self-esteem to be based on your emotional constitution? Is there no unvarying basis for self-worth?

The Bible has a deeper image. “God created human beings in the divine image” (Genesis 1:27). What if we could say “all your qualities are wonderful, but beyond all that you matter because you are in the image of God? There is an essence in you that is only yours—your divine spark. God loves you, and that love never changes.” When we do that, not only have we given our children a constant basis of self-esteem, but a noncomparative basis. If I am important because my parents love me, what does that teach me about the child whose parents do not love him, or who has no parents? But all are special in God’s eyes.

Did God Write the Bible?

Reprinted with permission from Beliefnet.com.

The Bible as a whole makes no claim for divine authorship. Although many passages are quoted in God’s name, the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) never assert that their entire content is divine. Nonetheless, due to various interpretations and doctrines, the belief has grown up in Judaism that the whole Torah (and to a certain extent, the subsequent biblical books and even the rabbinic tradition) is divine.

One engine of this belief is the existence of a fascinating intellectual problem. In modern times, the problem is called “the slippery slope.” Essentially, it points up the difficulty with drawing lines. Opponents of abortion use the slippery-slope argument very effectively: If a fetus is considered a human being at, say, eight months, what about eight months minus 30 seconds? Minus one minute? Five minutes? One day? At each step, it is hard to defend the absolute distinction between the point one defends and a point just marginally prior to it.

Similarly, the slippery slope wreaks havoc with arguments about biblical authorship. If one word, just one word, of the Bible is in fact of human origin, then how can one defend the divinity of any of it? If one word, why not two, or 10, or the whole book?

So it is intellectually neater to hew to a hard line. If it is all from God, then that’s the end of it. For centuries, Jewish exegetes (those who interpret texts) argued that this was the simple truth.

Unfortunately, the evidence does not always cooperate with our intellectual convenience. Once various other academic disciplines began to be developed–literary criticism, comparative religion, archaeology, and so forth–the divinity of the Bible seemed less secure.

Over the past several hundred years, the convergence of a mountain of evidence points to the human component of the Bible. There are parallel texts from other traditions (the 22nd chapter of Proverbs for example, parallels almost exactly an Egyptian text written centuries before); there are mistakes, duplications, emendations–even in the Talmud itself, the same passages in the Bible are often quoted with minute differences, demonstrating that more than one manuscript tradition was in circulation.