A teacher of mine recently told a diverse group of rabbis on retreat that “do you believe in God?” is a totally unJewish question. In fact, Rabbi Sid Schwarz claimed that it is always the wrong question and not one we even have to answer. Judaism can help us understand our own personal journeys of faith and struggle, our connections to each other and perhaps to something beyond ourselves, but it is not all about belief in God. This may seem shocking to some of us who might assume that without God, there can be no religion, which is often reduced to the conclusion that if I question God or emphatically don’t believe in God, then I cannot be a practicing Jew, or a “good Jew.” This may well be true for our Christian friends for whom it is largely the case that you cannot call yourself a Christian without some acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God and a personal savior. There is no practice without faith.
I get that the language of our prayers and the way we talk about the mitzvot as God’s commandments suggests something very different and for many of us these become barriers to our relationship with Judaism as a whole. The constant aggrandizement of a Kinglike God on a distant throne is very challenging if taken literally. For me as much as anyone! Perhaps precisely because of a predominantly Christian surrounding culture, we define ourselves through that lens, allowing faith and practice to be so intrinsically linked to one another, to make one impossible without the other. Frankly, that is simply not a Jewish idea! We can be deeply questioning, practicing, good Jews
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, a Ukrainian Hassidic master, had a famous retort to a self-declared atheist in the town. He approached him one day and said, “you know, I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in.” The transcendent, vengeful, distant, patriarchal God that so many reject, I reject too. I don’t believe in that God! So, now what? Does that mean we somehow give up being Jewish? Of course not. Does it make me a heretic? Maybe, but it also challenges us to see how we can have an authentic, dynamic relationship with our tradition. I have lost count of the number of people who, on discovering that I am a rabbi, feel that they have to apologize for being a “bad Jew,” which usually means that they don’t do much Jewish stuff. More often than not, they are a kind and decent person, doing all kinds of good in the world, and yet have this limited perception of what it means to be a “good Jew.” Of course, sadly, there are too many examples of people who are outwardly pious, “good” Jews who are actually dishonest, abusive or mean. It seems absurd, doesn’t it, that you could be a “good Jew” without being first a decent human being?
There are so many myths to dispel! Can you only be a good Jew if you keep lots of mitzvot? Can you only practice the Jewish religion if you believe in a clearly defined God, a God that commanded us and continues to command us from Sinai? Yes! Even having a very deep spiritual practice of prayer or meditation, does not necessarily depend on believing anything. In its ethical and in its spiritual forms, Judaism is a very practical path. Having a daily prayer practice, observing Shabbat, loving the stranger, mindful discipline in what we eat, following a sacred calendar, being honest in business, using our words carefully, are all part of a rich system that can bring greater meaning, joy and connection, regardless of what we believe or do not believe.
We are in the seven week period from freedom to revelation, from Pesach to Shavuot, whose forty nine days, the Omer, are counted every day, as a way of preparing us to receive Torah on the fiftieth day. I have no idea what really happened at Mount Sinai, what was transmitted and shared, but I do know, somehow, that this moment defines us; not necessarily to believe something tangible and specific, but to be in relationship, authentic relationship with our narrative and our values as a people, with our obligations and commitments, as we enter this juicy, annual reenactment of a past that changed our future.
This year, Shavuot falls over Memorial Weekend. There will be a community-wide night of learning and dawn service in Boulder on Saturday night/Sunday morning May 23rd at Har HaShem. Look out for more details. I also invite you to consider joining me and other rabbis and leaders from Hebrew Educational Alliance, Rodef Shalom and Ramah for Shavuot in the Mountains at Ramah of the Rockies!
Wherever you are for Shavuot and whatever you believe or don’t believe, I invite us all to use the seven weeks of counting the Omer and the fiftieth day of thunderous transformation to redefine and renew our own relationships to Judaism, to Torah, to each other, and perhaps even to God!