Do I Have To Believe In God To Be A Good Jew? Once upon a time, there was a great rabbinic sage who

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1 Do I Have To Believe In God To Be A Good Jew? Rabbi Laurence W. Groffman Yom Kippur Morning 5777/2016 Once upon a time, there was a great rabbinic sage who came home to find his nine year old daughter sobbing uncontrollably. He asked her what was the matter, and she explained that she had been playing hide and seek with her friends. When it was her turn to hide, she hid so well, that after a while, her friends gave up looking for her and went to play another game. When she finally emerged from her hiding place, she found herself all alone. As the father comforted his daughter, he began to wonder if God feels exactly the way his daughter does. After all, God has said, via our sacred texts, that if we do not follow 1

2 God s ways, God will hide from us and no longer be present to us. I wonder, thought the sage, if God has hid from us so successfully that we have given up looking for God and gone off in other directions. Maybe God is feeling lonely and abandoned. Perhaps the sage was right then--and right now. Many of us feel that God is hiding so well, that we have given up looking. While there may be many different reasons why people feel that God is in hiding, a common one is the observation that awful deeds are sometimes done by people who identify as religious and believe in God and the corollary observation that many good people are not at all religious. 2

3 Can t argue with that. Last I checked, we humans are flawed and imperfect, which means that religious or not believer or atheist, people can, all too often, go astray.so, yes, people do horrible things in the name of God, and wonderful things without any relationship with God at all. So, we say, I m still Jewish even if I don t believe in God; and I am a good person, which is what matters most. So, why bother with God? But is it true? Do we need to believe in God to be a Jew? Do we need to believe in God to be a good person? And, as an added bonus, let s also ask, do we have to believe in God to be a good Jew? 3

4 I am indebted to Rabbi Hartman and his book Putting God Second for shaping much of my thinking on this issue. Many years ago, a Jewish woman converted to Christianity in order to marry an Anglican man. They ended up getting divorced, so in 1963 she petitioned the Jerusalem High Court to be allowed to convert back to Judaism. The head of the court rejected her petition. As Rabbi Hartman paraphrases the court s ruling: You cannot convert back, because you never left. A person can no more easily leave Judaism than cease to be the child of his or her parents. ( Putting God Second, p. 142). 4

5 If someone remains a Jew even when they formally embrace another religion, it stands to reason that there is no ideological or belief litmus test for being a Jew. Once a Jew, always a Jew. Rabbi Harold Kushner describes it well, when he says Judaism is like a family. The various members of a family may hold wildly disparate views on any number of topics, but they are still members of the family. They do not all need to subscribe to a certain set of beliefs in order to be part of the family. In contrast, Christianity is more like a club--it was founded on a religious belief, and the community was, and is, formed when people who accept those beliefs come together. Once a person no longer has those beliefs, she 5

6 or he ceases to be Christian. Whereas being a Christian is contingent on holding a specific set of beliefs, we Jews were a community, a tribe, a people, first, and our religious ideals only came later. That is why there is no belief requirement, such as a belief in God, in order to be a Jew. So, we can be Jews without believing in God, but how about our second question: do we need to believe in God in order to be good? Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach was a rabbi who lived from 120 bce to 40 bce. In those days, a rabbi was not allowed to earn a living from being a rabbi, so Shimon ben Shetach, like other rabbis at the time, had to have a day job, so to speak. His was in the cotton trade. 6

7 The Talmud relates a story about him in which his students plead with Shimon ben Shetach to allow them to buy him a donkey to make his work easier and more efficient, which would free up more time in his schedule for teaching Torah. They finally buy a donkey for him, and when the students examined the donkey, they found a precious stone, hanging around its neck in a little bag. The students were thrilled at this discovery--they thought this was a miracle, a sign from God, that from now on, Shimon b. Shetach was to dedicate himself only to studying and teaching Torah. This must be God s plan. What s more, Jewish law is clear that R. Shimon b. Shetach was under no obligation to return the jewel, because Jewish law says that a Jew does not need to 7

8 return an object that an idolater has lost, and presumably, the owner of the donkey was an idolater. Not so fast. Shimon b. Shetach, after his students told him of this good news, asked them a simple question: is the owner of the donkey aware that this precious stone was attached to his donkey? The students tell him no. Shimon b. Shetach instructs them to return the stone. This story makes two points: Acting ethically and compassionately is more important than what God wants; after all, what God wants is expressed in the official rabbinic law that says the stone does not have to be returned; And what is ethical and moral is not determined by God. Rather, we human beings, in our collective 8

9 wisdom over time, have a good understanding and intuition about what the right thing is to do. Despite what God says in the law about being able to keep the jewel, Shimon b. Shetach--a flesh and blood human being-- knows in his heart that it is not okay to keep it. So, no, we do not have to believe in God or follow God s laws, in order to be a good person. After all, Shimon b. Shetach knows what is right without God telling him, and in fact, sometimes he knows better than God what the right thing is to do. Just ask our old pal Abraham. When he famously calls God to task for God s plan to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham lays into God in a big 9

10 way: Will not the judge of all the earth do justly? says Abraham. That is, as we say, chutzpah. But Abraham s point is that God is not acting morally by being willing to destroy two cities, which, wicked as they are, no doubt contain some good and righteous individuals. So how can God do a terrible thing like kill innocent people? In other words, there is an independent standard of right and wrong, of ethics and morality, to which God must subscribe, and when God does not, Abraham criticizes God. Belief in God is not necessary to be a good person, because even God needs to follow the moral path, a path that exists independently of God. Now, for the third question: do we have to believe in God to be a good Jew? 10

11 Hillel was one of the most famous Jewish sages; he lived in the first century b.c.e. One day, a non-jewish gentleman approached Hillel and told him that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the entire Torah while he stood there on one foot. Hillel famously takes up the challenge and replies: What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary, now go and study. We do not have nearly enough time to discuss all the dimensions and implications of this seemingly simple statement, but suffice it to say that Hillel gives the potential convert--and, by extension us-- the essence of Judaism. Notice that he does not say belief in God is what Judaism is all about--acting compassionately and sensitively towards others is. Acting ethically is the core of Judaism, 11

12 and therefore, we can conclude, that, yes, indeed, one can be a good Jew without believing in God. But wait--recall the end of Hillel s statement-- the rest is commentary; now go and study. He does not just leave it at-- What is hateful to you, do not do to others. We can get more out of being a Jew when we do more than only living morally. While faith in God is not a requirement for being a good Jew, I believe that some kind of faith in God, some engagement with religious practice is a precious gift we can give ourselves. This afternoon, we will read these words from the book of Leviticus: You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy. 12

13 The text does not say you are holy, but rather you shall be holy. Leviticus us telling us that instead of being good Jews, we can be striving Jews, Jews who know and learn more about our tradition, observe more of the practices and rituals of our tradition and who strive to do more and more mitzvot--jews who aspire to holiness. \We are here today because we want our lives to be better more purposeful and more meaningful than they were last year. We are here, I suspect, because at some level, we desire something more--call it holiness, call it transcendence, call it a sense that we do not want to be, nor can we be, the pinnacle of creation. We need to believe that there is something greater than, and beyond, 13

14 us. That is what we call God. To try to be holy as God is holy, makes us aspirational Jews, striving Jews. We can never be God, of course, but it is the striving to be like God that gives us the meaning we crave, the spiritual dimension that is all too often absent from modern life. Instead of getting our thrills from the latest version of the iphone or achievement at work or on the sports field or keeping up with the demise of Brangelina, we Jews get our thrills from learning Torah, doing good deeds and infusing our lives with a sense of the holy through our observance of Shabbat and holidays and praying together as a community. When we live this way, we make our lives into more than the daily grind of school and work. Instead, we live in a constant state of always trying to be more, to never feel that we have arrived. 14

15 In Rabbi Harmtan s words: The obligation to be holy because God is holy is in essence a commandment that demands a constant striving for that which cannot be reached. It challenges the Jewish people to never be satisfied with our achievements... it creates a spiritual path that is a perpetual journey of striving to become more. (p. 153) And that is the greatest gift that a relationship with, and a belief in, God gives us--it motivates us to never rest on our laurels. It impels us to say to ourselves, I can be more, do more, live more meaningfully. Religion, and the striving for holiness, opens us up to being able to feel what Heschel called radical 15

16 amazement, that unique feeling of wonder and awe of our world. What a gift, to be able to see the world as a place that inculcates a feeling of awe and reverence. What a contrast to-- another day, another dollar, or Same stuff, different day, or time is money. A belief in a God who calls us to make time holy, to set aside a day, like Shabbat, to be with our family, share dinner together, come together with community and celebrate together-- this is truly a gift that religion and God give us. Let s not forget how a belief in God can help us when life gets tough. No, God cannot prevent us from ever experiencing pain, loss or hardship. Knowing that there is a Divine Power greater than us, that has always existed and will always exist, reminds us that life, and our lives, can and will continue even after pain. We know that we 16

17 are never alone, because the One Who Is Greater Than All, will walk with us through the valley of shadows. As Hartman writes,...the God who accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death can also be a God who moves and empowers us to find order, meaning, and strength as we make our way through an inscrutable universe. This is the God who is with us the day after we suffer disappointment and tragedy, whose presence comforts and enables us to re enter human life, continually to start over, actively and constructively shaping our own destinies. This is the God whose presence, or indeed absence, is the religiously unanswerable question of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it was the same God to whom countless victims turned and found the strength to begin again. 17

18 This year, we have the same choice that the little girl s friends have in the hide and seek game. Is this the year when we keep playing, keep searching, for the God who can indeed be hard to find, whose presence we understandably sometimes have trouble feeling and sensing? Is this the year we say, that even though we can never fully find and comprehend and be God, it is playing the game, the searching, that is really the point, that no matter how hard it is, we will give ourselves the gift of God? Is this the year we work to be more than good Jews, but aspiring, striving Jews? Another Hasidic teacher once asked, like we ourselves do, Where is God? He answered: Where ever we let God in. 18

19 19

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