(Courtesy: Rabbi Marc Soloway)
In the town of Berditchev, the home of the great Hassidic master, Reb Levi Yitzhak, there was a self-proclaimed, self-assured atheist, who would take great pleasure in publicly denying the existence of God. One day Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev approached this man and said, “you know what, I don’t believe in the same God that you don’t believe in.” I don’t believe in the same God that you don’t believe in. Who is the God that we believe or don’t believe in and if it was a different God, would it change the way we believe?
Earlier this year, someone came to speak to me about conversion. Even though this person had studied extensively and was living an active and rather committed Jewish life, she just didn’t feel that she could complete a conversion to Judaism with integrity, because she did not think that she believed in God. “I am not sure that I believe in that God that you don’t believe in,” I said and told her the tale of Reb Levi Yitzhak. After exploring what she meant by God, it turned out that it was an austere, punishing God of her childhood that she found so hard to accept. After some theological unpacking, we came to realize that conversion to Judaism was not dependent on belief in that old God and, I am pleased to say, this person is now Jewish. Whether we have been brought up Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, it seems that somewhere lurking among the cobwebs of our past, there is so often a patriarchal, sometimes stern, sometimes loving, old bearded man figure up in the sky, that we still believe to be God. That God, for most of us, is very easy to reject, even though He seems so present among us and among the words of our Torah and liturgy. The direction of this God is clearly up, above us. However evolved our definition of God is, this vertical metaphor remains in tact in some way for many of us. A God beyond, up there in the sky who, we hope, hears our voices, answers our prayers. So, just take a moment to consider, who or what is God for you right now? Is there a God you do believe in or only one you don’t?
The images of God that permeate the pages of our High Holiday Machzor, even this beautiful new one, are quite challenging if we take them literally, but extremely comforting and powerful if we see beyond the sometimes distant metaphors. The central image of God is of a King, who sits on a throne of judgment on high and we, the trembling loyal subjects below, plead that love and compassion win out over the harsh decrees. Avinu Malkaynu, Our Father, Our King. Both parental and royal metaphors of God are very ancient, the first tuning us to our quest to be connected to our source and origin, (our tatti!); the latter is as old as human kingship, where a powerful figure became God-like through being obeyed and worshiped and this becomes projected back to the ultimate power in the world. The history of God has been a long and interesting one, with each Jewish period redefining in some way who or what this force that we call God is and how, or even if, he/she/it acts in our lives. We Jews are not very good at throwing out anything, so none of these opposing and sometimes contradictory notions of God are ever fully rejected, as Professor Art Green says in his new book Radical Judaism,
“The journey from the tribal warrior god and the projected superhero to the unitive face of Being is indeed a long one, and one in which prior steps are never quite entirely left behind. Because of this, any current discussion of God, particularly in the context of a tradition as ancient as Judaism, is freighted with images, liturgical memories, and literary tropes from each stage along the way” (P.32).
This means, I think, that more than the images and language change over time, our interpretation and relationship to them change. The essence of what changes is the direction of the metaphor of the divine-human relationship, from vertical to internal, within the human heart rather than high up in the heavens. The Torah and other biblical books themselves contain both. In the Torah portion that we read just last Shabbat, Nitzavim, Moses addresses the Israelites:
“The word I command you this day is not too wondrous for you and is not far off. It is not in heaven…(lo b’Shamayim hee)…nor is it over the sea…but it is very close to you, within your own mouths and hearts to be fulfilled.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-13).
God is perhaps the most elemental aspect of spiritual life, which for the fundamentalist is constant, unchanging with a clear and certain will , yet if we trace the history of God through the ages, there is a surprising evolution and fluidity. The angry, war-like God of the bible; the loving paternal God of the rabbis of the Talmud, sometimes imminent (right here), sometimes transcendent (far above us); the Medieval, philosophical God of Maimonides and others, who harshly scorned a literal reading of the metaphors of God in the Torah, affirming that no human attribute, physical or emotional, could be in any way applied to God, but that we are limited by language and symbols that attempt to express the unexpressable. Maimonides, or Rambam, rather saw God as the lofty goal of deep intellectual contemplation. The God of the Kabbalists is one whose divine flow could be brought into the world through our intentions and our actions, corresponding to a series of sefirot, or psycho-spiritual attributes of God becoming manifest; the Hassidic God is everywhere and everything – “ayn od milvado, m’lo chol haaretz c’vodo – there is nothing that is not God, the entire earth vibrates with God’s glory; the Neo-Hassidic God of Art Green, Reb Zalman and others is an expansion of this same Pantheistic God, placed in a very immediate, universal and contemporary setting for us, that embraces much of what we might consider to be more eastern notions of the Divine.
Just as God has evolved and changed in a few thousand years of Jewish history, so too does the image and relationship we have to God change over the course of a life time. My personal theology is changing all the time and how I experience God today is different to yesterday and tomorrow. God has an infinite number of attributes and qualities, which are reflected in the many different names, as if God is a secret agent with multiple identities and passports: El, El Shaddai, Elohim, Melech, Adonai, Ehyeh ahser Ehyeh, Boreh haOlam, Shechinah, Ruach HaKodesh to name just a few. God is so much more than a father and a king! God is also mother, lover, intimate friend. When God reveals Godself to Moses at the burning bush, the name that is revealed is Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I will be that which I will be. This profound name implies constant changing, allowing God to be just what God is in each new moment. Also, the ineffable, unpronounceable four letter name of God, Y-H-V-H, is a construction of the Hebrew verb to be and can mean was, is, will be and is imagined by the mystics as ultimate Being and pure breath, which might be the only way we can actually attempt to pronounce it.
For the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, the world was “overflowing with the bounteous presence of God, accessible everywhere and at each moment to any Jew with inner eyes and ears open.” God is clearly neither male nor female, even though much of the God language is male. Shechinah, the immediate in-dwelling presence of God is characteristically female as is, perhaps, the name El Shaddai, which some scholars believe refers to a nurturing mother God with breasts, shadi’im in Hebrew. In Kabbalah, there is a notion of Partzufim, symbolic faces of God that include a Divine mother, Divine father, daughter and son. Beyond gender, beyond language, beyond time and space, Jew and non Jew, human and non-human, animate and inanimate, is a pulse of absolute unity. It is the vibration of the Oneness of everything in the created world, echoed in the echad of the shema and in our every breath.
The Kotzker Rebbe once famously asked his students, “where do you find God?” “Why, God is everywhere,” responded a keen student. “Almost,” replied the Rebbe, “but not quite. God is wherever we let God in.” The unspeakable, the unanswerable and pressing questions of our age demand to know where is God when there is so much suffering in the world. If God is in everything and everyone, then what about evil? What about devastating natural disasters, like the wildfire raging in our midst and what about human brutality? Oy, that is really the subject of a whole other sermon, but when people asked “where was God in Auschwitz?” Abraham Joshua Heschel reframed it and said “the real question is where was man?” When humanity suffers, God suffers too, crying with us, as the famous Midrash in Eicha Rabbah describes it. We are God and God is us. God’s image is within us and God, as it were, is waiting for us to show up. For Ben Azzai in the Talmud, the fact that human beings are created b’Tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, is the most important principle there is. In the words of Art Green:
“The greatest gift we can give to another human being is that of treating him or her as one who embodies God’s presence. The greatest harm we can do is to rob a person of that sense.” (Radical Judaism, p.124)
God in Search of Man and Man’s Quest for God are two titles of books by Heschel that give us clues to the mutuality of this human divine relationship . One day Rabbi Ber was out walking with a group of his Hassidm and came across a little girl standing behind a wall crying. “What’s wrong?” asked the rabbi. “I was playing hide and seek with my friends and I hid and they did not come to find me.” The Rebbe later explained to his followers that this is what it is like with God. “In that little girl’s reply I hear the lament of the shechinah. God hides God’s face from us, but none of us are looking!” The shechinah, that intimate presence, is waiting for us to find her!
Our tradition talks of the Torah as Holy black fire on holy white fire and perhaps this can apply to the liturgy as well. The words inside this Machzor are in a language that is, at times, remote and that precedes some of the later philosophical and mystical ideas about the nature of God, which has lead to the fact that most of us still have an inherited, childlike notion of God that limits us and alienates us. The white spaces between the letters of the images, however, can bring that God to life within our very hearts and souls with immediacy and depth, helping us define who we are and what we must do. “B’chol darchehah da’ayhu – In all of your ways, know God,” says the Book of Proverbs. For the Baal Shem Tov, this means bring awareness, a mindful presence into everything that we do and that is God!
In April, my family was very blessed to celebrate my father’s 2nd Bar Mitzvah at 83 year’s old. A good old age in Jewish tradition is three score and ten, seventy, so at seventy you start counting again, so at 83 it is time for another Bar Mitzvah! Many of you know that this summer, my father faced enormous health challenges and we nearly lost him, but Thank God (whoever that God is) he is now doing well and back at home. (I would like to thank all of you who gave me such strong support and love and for all of your prayers over that scary period, which helped so much and I certainly felt God manifest through the kindness of this community.) Anyway, on his second Bar Mitzvah, my father proudly announced in his Bar Mitzvah boy’s speech that he was an agnostic! For him, like most of us, a certain knowledge of a supernatural, transcendent God, is impossible and also less relevant than how we act in the world, which is a profoundly Jewish sentiment. My father believes, as do many of you, that you can be a very good Jew and act in wonderful, loving ways, without necessarily believing in God.
Well, I do believe that the capacity that each of has to do good in the world, to perform mitzvot, divine pathways of connection both ritual and ethical, is God. This God does not always speak to us in language and it is not always with words that we connect to God. Perhaps it is in silence that God speaks most, in that kol demama daka, in the voice of that thinly sliced silence that echoes through these days. Perhaps it is the sound of the shofar in which we hear God calling us, asking us to participate in this project of being more aware and more responsive at this frightening time where we are all needed to listen and to act.
However we imagine God and God’s voice, that voice asks us the same question that was asked of Adam, the first human being, in the Garden of Eden, “ayeka?” “Where are you? For Art Green, this is a threefold question echoing three pillars of our tradition. Where are you in your mind? Your heart? Your deeds? “Where are you? Are you stretching your mind to its fullest to know the One?” “Where are you? Are you stretching you heart to open as widely as it can?” “Where are you? Are you engaged in the work given to you by the call of God?”
This day marks the birthday of creation, the New Year, and we are part of that creation as descendants of Adam and Eve in that garden. This explosive and ever-present myth of Genesis transcends anything that we may or may not believe to be true about it, both the Creator and the process of creation. Whether we are creationists, evolutionists, believers of intelligent design, the myth of the garden transcends it all. However we may perceive God, vertically, internally, as subtle energy within our own cells; as a booming, commanding presence in heaven; or as the gentle beating of our own heart, we are all in this together. We see, once again, the fragile nature of our world with its latest string of unbearable natural and human disasters, including this raging fire right here in our own community, that threaten our existence and we need to listen to the voice of God from within and from without asking us to be more aware, to listen more, to help those around us and we are called to answer that ultimate question, even knowing that a different God can ask the same question at different times in different ways. Ayeka? Where are you?