“Where there is faith, there are fewer beliefs. You use beliefs to shore up opinions, rather than a relationship with the cosmos… Faith is the function – the deep, deep function. So when you use the word ‘faith’ as a noun, it doesn’t work. ‘I should have faith so, nu, I should go to the grocery store and see if I can buy some faith.’ It doesn’t go that way. So what is faith? Faith is a ‘faith-ing’; it is a verb, it is an activity, it is a function. And it goes like this: ‘I open myself up the Central Intelligence of the Universe so that I might live for the purpose for which I was made.’”
These words come from an interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l, from a documentary film still in production, Beyond Belief. As I prepare myself for the High Holy Days this year, I’m spending more time than usual with the specific liturgy that occupies the prayer services of the season. We are preparing some draft material from the Reform movement’s forthcoming (2015) High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, and so I’ve been paying close attention to how some of the contemporary material has been selected to complement and, depending on how it is used by the prayer leader, sometimes to replace the traditional liturgy.
During my own youth I struggled enormously with what appeared to be the predominant themes of the High Holy Days; worshiping a “King” who sat in judgment over us and decided between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur whether we would be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death in the year to come. Actually, struggle is the wrong word. I outright rejected that set of images. And, for a long time, I had nothing to replace them with. I was able reestablish a real love for Judaism when I learned how to approach the breadth of our tradition more as a cultural anthropologist. Then much of it became a thing of great beauty – ancient ideas that fulfilled important purposes that were still meaningful today, if only we translated some of these ideas into a more contemporary language; if we understood the difference between the form and the purpose.
Today, the only Book of Life I think about is the one in which I’m writing the pages each and every day. The High Holy Days becomes a time for some introspection to see if I’m living in alignment with who I think I want to be and what I think I should be doing or refraining from doing. I do my best to engage in the spiritual practice that Reb Zalman called “faith-ing.” Beliefs, he acknowledges, can get us into trouble, especially if we read the humanly-constructed words, stories, laws, and theologies of our religious traditions in fundamentalist ways.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do away with the particularist practices, prayers, teachings and rituals of Judaism. Once I’ve freed them from the shackles of belief, I’m able to appreciate and enjoy them as part of a rich, cultural heritage. I’m able to explore and probe them to try and uncover the questions, aspirations, concerns, and values of those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. I have come to appreciate that the prayers we recite and the rituals we perform over the High Holy Days provide the scaffolding for the faith-ing work that I need to do for myself. Without them I might never take the time to engage in this important work of the spirit. There would never be the right day or the right season; there would always be something more pressing to do. And the different parts of the liturgy, and the many images and ideas embedded in them become a stepping-stone for my own inner contemplations, guiding me through different states and activities, from gratitude to remorse, to questioning, to realigning and rededicating, so that I can give myself the best shot at entering a new year renewed.
I’m looking forward to being able to pray with a new machzor that, through the diversity of language, theology, sources and teachings, helps us all to see that the ancient images do not describe a literal reality, but are simply doorways into the inner world of the soul, and the work that we are all invited to do at this season.
Rabbi Gurevitz is posting about individual texts and prayers from the forthcoming Mishkan haNefesh on her own blog, ‘Raise it Up’ throughout the month of Elul.
Don’t answer until you’ve done some rigorous research.
That’s right, research: with a method, literature review, experimental design, data collection, analysis, conclusions, and proposals for future research.
Last week, I conducted a mini-study, and here is my research report.
Method: For a study of opinion, a phenomenological (experiential) method is best. Thus, I explore my subjective response to two different God concepts.
Literature review: This study explores two concepts found in Jewish sources: God as king and God as energy. Each concept offers a way of understanding Genesis Chapter One. Here God says, “Let there be light!” and light comes to be.
Readers in the Talmudic era (200-500 C.E.) pictured a King with a staff of thousands, quietly leaping to fulfill his every command, beginning with the creation of light.
Kabbalistic philosophers (c. 10th century) pictured an energy underlying all creation, in the way that breath underlies speech. Passed through a body’s cavities, breath becomes sound. Passed through God’s designs, divine energy becomes familiar ideas and objects.
Experimental design: The familiar Jewish practice of blessing is the technology used to explore the two concepts.
Talmud teaches that the world belongs to God the King. We inhabit it at the pleasure of our Divine landlord. We should pay rent at the rate of 100 expressions of gratitude per day. Each time we notice something extraordinary, we should say, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam…Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the Universe who ___________________.”
Hasidic teachers (c. 1700-1800) use Hebrew etymology to recast the blessing as an appreciation of Divine energy. Baruch, traditionally translated as “blessing,” is from a root that also means “fountain.” Adonai stands in for YHWH, the Ineffable One. Elohim often refers to “God as revealed in creation.” Melekh shares a root with malchut, a kabbalistic synonym for Shechinah, God’s intimate maternal presence. The root of the word olam also means “elusive.” Thus, each time we see something extraordinary, we should say the Talmudic words, and mean, “You are flow, beyond concepts, yet revealed in creation, intimately close, yet elusive and infinite, present in this ______________________.”
Data Collection: On two summer days, I walked outdoors, taking ten minutes each day to notice extraordinary things. On the first day, I marked each thing noticed by saying in English the Kabbalistic interpretation of the blessing. On the second day, I did the same with the Talmudic interpretation. Each day I recorded my observations, thoughts and feelings.
“You…are present in this abandoned spider web.” Weather has frayed it into two kinds of tissue. The small, decaying thread opens onto potentially infinite information about the life form that produced it.
“You…are present in this dried-out maple seedpod.” The veins in its leaf are secret pathways, feeding it, just as the membranes hidden in the human body feed us. Many life forms have many common structures. Does a single molecular code structure us all?
“You…are present as my phone rings with a missed call, but no message is left.” My anxiety over lost information is insubstantial and yet overwhelming. What does its presence tell me about myself? Negative emotions are an opportunity to learn.
“Blessed are you…who created this flower.” As I get close to a glowing, yellow buttercup with an intricate center, I feel as though I am in a royal garden. The world seems incredibly lush.
“Blessed are you…who caused this seed carrying hair to float and land.” What a wondrous mechanism. My respect for the designer increases, but I do not speculate on how the designer operated.
“Blessed are you…who caused this crow to cross my path.” Why, the crow must be one of the King’s servants!
Analysis: “God as energy” brings my mind to familiar scientific and psychological questions. “God as King” helps me understand famous Jewish teaching stories about courtyards and angels of the king.
Conclusion: I believe in God as energy. This belief is consistent with my philosophical education. I do not believe in God as King. However, I find it a powerful metaphor.
Question for further research: Perhaps if I had more exposure to monarchy, I would take that metaphor literally as well.
You might be drawn to replicate this research project in your own life. Or you may think it would not be an authentic approach for you. By sharing the project, I invite you to research the God question on your own, drawing on tools of Jewish tradition. Practice responsible theology: research before believing. Over and over again.
Image: discussions4learning.com. Sources and Inspirations: Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams on Tractate Berachot, Jerusalem & Babylonian Talmuds; Rabbi Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing; Catherine Marshall and Gretchen B. Rossman, Designing Qualitative Research. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.
Researchers at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have just published a new study about atheists and atheism, and interestingly, the authors argue that non-belief in God is just as variegated as belief in God. At least initially, they have identified six types of non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA), Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA), Seeker Agnostics (SA), Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA).
The way these different groups defined themselves show how many different ways there are to think about God, even if people don’t believe in God — the Antitheists actively try to convince people that religion is harmful; the Activists pursue social justice work (such as environmentalism or LGBT rights); and the Intellectuals tend to love to study science, philosophy, sociology and politics.
One group, however, seemed to encapsulate a large segment of the Jewish community: the Ritual Atheist / Agnostics. As Christopher Silver, co-author of the study, notes:
Ritual Atheist/Agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual. For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions. Such participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g. Jewish) or the perceived utility of such practices in making the individual a better person.
Ritual Atheists / Agnostics, in other words, are less interested in whether or not religion is “true” than whether it “works.” Considering that Judaism is religion much more about action than about faith, perhaps it is not surprising that so many Jews would fall under this category.
Yet I have one major problem with this study. While the authors articulate distinctions among many types of non-believers, they lump together atheists and agnostics. In fact, atheism and agnosticism are almost totally independent of each other — and in fact, many Jews (myself included) would likely self-identify as “agnostic theists.”
First, the question of God’s existence is ultimately an unanswerable one. After all, different people think of, talk about and experience God in different ways, so the word “God” means different things to different people. Since we don’t all agree on what God is, we can’t accurately talk about whether or not God exists, because depending on how we define “God,” the answer to that question will be “yes” for some people and “no” for others.
Secondly, if we have any supernatural elements in our definition of God, we can’t use natural means to answer the question of God’s existence — by definition, such questions would be outside the realm of scientific knowledge. Indeed, even some of today’s greatest scientists and philosophers who call themselves “Antithesists,” such as Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have all said that they cannot say definitively whether or not God exists.
So because we can’t know the answer to God’s existence with certainty, the only intellectually honest answer to the question about whether God exists is “I don’t know.” And so that makes me an agnostic.
But even though we can’t know about God, we can certainly create our beliefs about God. We can decide how we use our religious outlook in our every day lives. And for me, theism is the language I want to use. When I meet a person for the first time, and believe that they are “created in the image of God,” it impacts the way I will treat them. When I experience the awe and majesty of nature, I can say that I “feel God’s presence.” And when I do social justice work, I can say that I am “partnering with God to make our world more whole,” which adds a level of spirituality to my actions.
Indeed, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu recently wrote in her piece “Where Does God Fit In?“: “We do not talk about God in the liberal Jewish community. We talk about the importance of community itself, showing up for services, and giving charity.” So perhaps if we focused less on the question “Does God exist?” and more on the question “How do my beliefs about God impact my life and our world?”, we could begin to have deeper and more meaningful conversations about God in a Jewish setting.
As the Yiddish saying goes, “If I knew God, I’d be God.” So even as we don’t know about God’s existence, we can still explore what we want our relationship with the Divine to look like.
And if we look at God in this way, we are “agnostic theists” — which I have found to be the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying way to look at the world.
There is much discussion currently about imposing limits on blasphemy. It seems clear that the vast majority of those in the West oppose it and many in Muslim majority countries support it. I would argue that Judaism has not only tolerated blasphemy, but found a place for it in its sacred texts. This does not mean that communities have always handled heretics well or to suggest pluralism and liberalism are found everywhere in the community, but I do feel there is a model Judaism has that might contribute to a broad religious discussion and conversation.
Rabbinic literature has many examples of challenges to God, explicitly questioning God’s justice. An early precedent in the Bible is Abraham in Genesis 18 (Will not the Judge of the earth do justice?). A well known passage from the Talmud (Menachot 29b) is where Moses questions God after seeing Rabbi Akiva being viciously killed by the Romans. Moses asks: Is this Torah and its reward?” God responds by telling Moses to shut up!
These two passages share a number of things in common even as one is biblical and one rabbinic. Religious figures are allowed to question God. Indeed, placed in their mouths are the most challenging questions. If Abraham can speak out against God’s justice surely can I. If Moses cannot accept that there is reward in the world for following Torah, surely I do not have to accept that belief.
Secondly, and more importantly, what these texts suggest is that our role is not to defend God or attempt to offer interpretations that let God off the hook. Our job is to defend the people against God. Moses must stand up for Rabbi Akiva. Moses is doing much more than ask a question why good people, in this case Rabbi Akiva, suffers. He is raising it as blasphemy. “ Is this Torah and is this its reward?” It is a rhetorical question that has no answer. God does not attempt one. The response of literally: “Quiet! Or shut up, so it has come to My mind” fails to answer anything. Its abruptness only affirms the legitimacy of the challenge.
There are many other texts I can harness, but a blog post is not the place. I will add that Judaism by and large can accommodate blasphemy and heresy as long as it is placed in the mouths of believers and practitioners. It is because nobody questions Moses’s faith that he ask the heretical questions. Ironically it is the most traditional who can be the most radical and yet remain inside the fold.