Can You Be Religious And Not Believe In God?
I had the pleasure of giving the second day sermon for Rosh Hashana at Temple Beth Am this morning. Unfortunately torrential downpours kept many worshipers away, so I am happy to share this with all my readers and those who did not make it today. I chose the topic because belief in God is something that many of us struggle with at various times in our life. I hope this resonates with you and please share it with as many people as you think might appreciate it. At the end of the sermon I have a special announcement.
There is a lovely little show on PBS Masterpiece Theater, called Grantchester. It is about a small town British Vicar in the late 1950’s who befriends the chief detective in town and helps him solve the inevitable weekly murder. After 7 seasons with an eighth renewed, one wonders how Grantchester like so many other small English villages and towns on PBS, can have countless murders, but that is a question for another time.
What makes the show so successful is the beloved characters who are always somehow involved in the case.
There is a woman called Mrs. C who takes care of the vicarage and cooks the meals for the clergy. Until this season she was a highly committed religious zealot who believed in God and acting in a good Christian way.
She wasn’t particularly tolerant of anyone who strayed off the proper path.
She had a hard time when she found out the assistant priest was a homosexual, though once the second Vicar could no longer keep his homosexuality a secret, and after her initial knee jerk reaction of condemnation, she came to see his struggle and his pain and she evolved to see his goodness, his kindness and his pain.
She became tolerant and then supportive of him even as he was forced to leave the clergy by his superiors in the church.
And then this season something changed.
She was secretive and constantly angry at everyone. If her husband or friends said anything to her, they were likely to have their head chewed off.
That is when we discover that she was diagnosed with a dangerous cancer. She kept it to herself except for long dialogues with God who would surely spare such a devout woman. When He didn’t, she became angry at God who she now did not believe in. She was now officially a disbeliever.
Later in the show she decides to take a chance on a difficult surgery, mostly to quiet her husband and friends. At the same time the Vicar she worked for was shot and was rushed to the hospital in a very tenuous condition. She was aware of his condition and again expressed her anger at the God she no longer believed in.
At the end of the episode, she woke up from surgery, not sure where she was but surrounded by all who loved her, and her first question was quite surprising.
“Is this Heaven?”
The gay defrocked Vicar’s partner said, “I doubt that we would be here if this was heaven”.
The next scene we see Mrs. C sitting by the hospital bed of her dying Vicar who opens his eyes and we know he will now live.
Mrs. C after being saved, and seeing the Vicar survive, now understands she was wrong and that indeed God is wonderful as he saved the 2 of them from what appeared to be a certain death.
Allow me to state the theology of Mrs. C.
“I believe in God with all my heart and follow all His rules rather aggressively and judgmentally, as long as my life is protected. When I am vulnerable and pray, I expect Him to answer me, and when He doesn’t, I no longer believe in Him”.
It is sort of, “heads I win tails you lose. If the deck is not stacked in my favor, it’s a bad deck”.
My 40 plus years of experience tell me that she is not alone in her outlook.
We assume goodness and God’s protection, and if it is absent, and we are living the right way, and we are calling out to Him and still we are unprotected from the wrath of nature, or the evil of criminals, or the failing of our body, then it was all a charade.
What good is God if He doesn’t answer the pleas and prayers, especially of His devoted?
“You weren’t there for me God, so now you are dead to me.”
Not surprisingly, in the post holocaust era , Rabbi Richard Rubenstien wrote “After Auschwitz”, and he was a leading thinker in the God Is Dead movement.
He argued that Judaism had a lot to teach and guide us with, but a belief in an all-powerful omnipotent God was no longer tenable.
For many people, especially holocaust survivors, and many other Jews, this was a door, opening to atheism, and that belief has spread greatly in the years since.
I was born 5 years after the holocaust and grew up in a community with many survivors. The fact that some were atheists never surprised me, it was those who were devout and practicing, who came on mass to shule for Yizkor, they were the ones I could never figure out.
It is not surprising that there are many Jews who have difficulty with their belief in God, including me.
We recoil from the horrors that occur in the world; from acts of violence, from tragedies caused by nature, like earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis, and wonder where is this God that we believe in?
There is a new phenomenon in Judaism that attempts to deal with this issue. I don’t know how widespread it is, but it is something that intrigued me when I came across it this year. It is called Fictionalism, or as the editor of the Jewish Week called it, “religion for non-believers.”
The New York Times did a story on Professor Scott Hershovitz who defines it as pretending to follow a set of beliefs to reap the benefits of a set of actions.
He fasts on Yom Kippur and observes Passover because he says, “It’s just what we Jews do …and it keeps me connected to a community that I value. “
His longer professorial view is that “when it feels like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals — but not because I believe my prayers will be answered. The prayers we say in synagogue remind me that evil has always been with us, but that people persevere, survive, and even thrive. I take my kids to synagogue, so they feel connected to that tradition so that they know the world has been falling apart from the start and that there’s beauty in trying to put it back together.”
A few years ago in Commentary magazine an attorney, Jay Lefkowitz, described himself as a “social orthodox Jew”-that is, a Jew who practices orthodoxy but isn’t really sure how God fits into his life…He writes, “ I certainly wasn’t sure if Jewish law was divine or simply the result of two millennia of rabbinical interpretations and so for me and I imagine for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity.”
To sum up, God does not exist, but I love and observe Judaism because it feels good, it gives me a pathway to life that is warm and rewarding, and it is something that Jews do, so I do it.
When I first read this, I thought what he was really saying was,
“I don’t really believe in God, but I come to shule for the cholent, the single malt and my buddies.”
This may work for him, but does it work for you?
Can you come to shule today and encourage your kids and grandkids to go as well if you really don’t believe in God?
How can you pray to a God you do not believe exists?
How many people would willingly give up lobster and BLT’s and of course cheeseburgers to follow the rules of a God that doesn’t exist?
I don’t think this is a solution for the masses so let me try some other approaches.
How about the possibility that God is there for each of us if we are only open to seeing it?
A man had a dream that he was walking along the beach with God. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed there were two sets of footprints in the sand one belonging to him the other to God. When the last scene flashed before him, he looked more closely at the footprints and noticed that many times along the path there was only one set of footprints in the sand.
He also noticed that this happened during the lowest and the saddest times in his life. This really bothered him, and he questioned God. He asked,
“Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you would walk all the way. But I noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I do not understand why, when I needed you the most, you deserted me?”
God replied, “my precious precious child… I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it is because then, I am carrying you.”
This is the approach that says that God is aways around and we have a relationship with Him, but we are not always aware of that presence.
When we feel that God is missing and we get angry, it is our failing, not God’s that is at fault and that shuts us off from the very God we crave.
We all want there to be a God and to have a relationship with that God. Life is easier to navigate if we are not alone, if we have a lover, a friend, a companion, a partner.
We want to be in a relationship with God, so we are not alone and we have a navigator for this life.
Most of us don’t feel it but maybe it is because we have always had it and did not realize it was there.
A boy’s mother called the make a wish foundation which grants last wishes to dying children. Her son had always wanted to be a fireman, so arrangements were made for him to leave the hospital for a day to visit a city fire station. The anticipation alone was enough to rally the sick boy.
The firefighters took him for a ride through the city streets on a hook and ladder truck, with sirens blaring. His body was limp, but his face shone brightly.
After the ride they had special ceremony for the boy at the firehouse. They gave him a fireman’s hat and a jacket with their battalion insignia and his name was embroidered over the pocket.
Every firefighter shook his hand and welcomed him as their newest member. It was the happiest day of his young life.
The boy returned to the hospital, only to take a final turn for the worse, gasping with irregular breathing and intermittent consciousness.
Knowing that the end was near, the family asked if it was possible to waive the two visitor at a time rule, so the firemen could say a final goodbye. The hospital agreed.
When the family asked the firemen if they could come to say goodbye, the fireman said,
“we’ll do better than that. Unlatch the windows to his room and tell the hospital to inform the patients not to be alarmed by the sirens. It’s just the fire department coming to pay respect, to one of its own.”
Within minutes, everyone heard the approaching hook and ladder by its sirens. Raised by the sound, the boy awakened to see the firefighters climbing through his hospital window.
One of the firemen picked the emaciated boy up and cradled him in his arms. The boy smiling weakly, whispered, “does this mean that I am really a fireman?”
The firemen responded, “you always were.”
Maybe that is the approach to take with our relationship with God. We have always wanted to have that relationship; we feel like it is missing but it has always been there we just didn’t see it.
But my friends maybe we are overly complicating this.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that in all aspects of religion and life, make it more simple. We over complicate everything. We are so sophisticated we make ourselves neurotic. Maybe simplicity is what is called for.
So let me try to make this whole question of God into something so simple that we can all relate.
What do we know about our obligation to God?
It is to Love God with all our hearts, all our soul, and all our might.
What is missing?
Loving God is a pure, non-conditional, non-transactional relationship. I just love God and I am lucky to have God to love. Anything else may or may not happen, but that is not what this love is about.
When I was 17 there was a girl in USY that I was crazy about. I don’t know if she ever knew that. I think she didn’t. When I saw her or interacted with her, I had this amazing feeling. I was just happy to be in her orbit.
Call it puppy love or attraction, I don’t know, and it was never reciprocated, but my heart fluttered just to be in her space.
Did I have hopes and dreams for more?
Certainly, but the fact that it never happened never lessened what I felt for her. It was all one way and yet I preferred that to not being around her.
So why share this with you?
Because God is like that girl.
Do I hope for more?
Sure, I want Him to appear and save me in crisis, and the world while He is at it.
But do I reject God and the feelings that I have because I don’t get more?
Because the act of being able to love is something that I control, and it makes me feel something. That feeling does not go away because I never get any more.
I don’t get angry and lash back. I am lucky to have God in my life. Anything more would be great, but God doesn’t stop being a passion of mine, because passion is what I bring to the relationship.
I am the one in need and just knowing that God is in my life is something special for me.
In my adult life the role of that USY girl is played by God.
I may ask questions, I may want more than what I get, I may be disappointed, but in the end just having God in my life is important, and that is what the Torah understands when it defines what I am supposed to do about this complicated relationship. Make it simple.
“ Shema Yisrael Hahem Eloheynu Hashem Ehad. Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might”.
May you all find that love.
I am delighted to announce that my new book, Wisdom Grows In My Garden, will be published and available around the end of April. It will be available as an ebook from Amazon and in all bookstores in a paperback. More information to come in the spring.