Friday, 29 September 2017

God Optional - Kol Nidrei 5778

God Optional

A long time ago, now, I started thinking about the Rabbinate. There was so much that enticed me; the study of Torah, the majesty of Shabbat, even - I’ll admit it - the idea of having a bunch of people sit and listen to me pontificate for a while - thanks for coming. There was just the one problem - the God problem.

I didn’t really have any relationship with God. I hadn’t heard any voices. I hadn’t spent my life in fear, or in love, with a white bearded deity on a cloud. I’d uttered a bunch of words in shul - I’d even found inspiration and comfort in prayer - but I’d never taken the God-ness of our liturgy too much to heart. And here I was thinking about the Rabbinate - chutzpah, dishonesty or possibly on to something?

We had a visit earlier in the Summer from one of my dearest American colleagues, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavi. Amichai runs an organisation called Lab/Shul - it’s branded ‘God-Optional - Open To All.’ I get what he is trying to achive; saying to people that it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t believe about God. Here’s Judaism, you want it, come on in. Take what you want to take, and leave what you want to leave. Perhaps most of all, Amichai is acknowledging that the G-word is a barrier for many of us. Calling Judaism ‘God-Optional’ opens a path to those who are never going to take seriously something they feel is predicated on a deceit.

So here’s my ‘does it matter’ question for Kol Nidrei - does it matter if you believe in God?

I know it’s easy to insist it is; I can cite Rambam and Rashi, and the rest of ‘em. There is a mighty list of theologically inclined Rabbis who all agree that Judaism without a relationship with God is an impossibility. But I also know the reality of Jewish life in this special community, and many others. There are loads of us busily getting on with Jewish lives; learning, cultural engagement and even prayer - who don’t do God. Many of us are actually quite comfortable customising our Judaism to exclude the God bit. Does that matter?

OK, that’s the question clearly put. And here it gets a little tricky. I occasionally joke with upcoming BMs that there’s a trapdoor under the Bimah, and if they make a mistake in their leyning they’ll find themselves dropping into a piranha pit underneath. I say it with a smile. But this sort of sermon does feel a little like that. I know what’s coming.

The truth is I don’t care much about a person’s use of the G-word. You can tell me you believe in God. You can tell me you don’t. It would figure pretty low on a list of things I would want to know about your qualities as a person and your relationship with Judaism. But that’s not because I’m into what most people refer to when they talk about God-optional in Judaism.

Most people, when they talk about God-optional Judaism, mean that there is a fully realised Judaism that can be lived culturally, with a love of the Jewish people, Jewish history and even Jewish study. And that’s it. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I think Judaism needs an existential component - existential as in - connected to a grand vision of the nature of existence. It’s just that I think that if you connect to three key elements of that existential sense of what I think Judaism has to be about, I would encourage you not to worry so much about the G-word. If you can go along with these three key parts of Jewish life - you’ve already got it.

So these are the three key parts of the existential nature of Judaism.

The first is an awareness that you are not the most central thing in the Universe. None of us is. I’m aware that’s a little counter-cultural. We live in a world obsessed with placing our own needs and desires front and central - a view it has to be said, largely fostered by those making money from exploiting our desires to satiate own needs to line their own pockets. More fool us. But seeing our own desires as not ultimately important is more than a waste of money. It’s shallow and dangerous. Placing self-interest at the centre of our world view, turns the rest of the world, and certainly all the people in it, into the means to our own ends. Seeing our own desires as supremely important empties out an ability to care about anyone or even anything else. It spells disaster for any serious attempt at relationships. It’s dangerous but we all do it, all the time. We judge political parties, friends, professional colleagues, even the ecology of our planet in terms of what they could do for us, rather than see our lives as opportunities to serve, to care and to tend.

Locating ultimacy as beyond self-interest is an essential component of what people who use the G-word should mean when they use the G-word. Belief in God is a training in recognising the power otherness. “I am God,” reads the first of the Ten Commandments, and you are not. Belief in God is belief in there being something more important that anything we could possess, tame or own. It’s a training in humility. It opens us up to realise that what we have is not some kind of right but a gift and a grace.

If you can get to this place of grace, recognising otherness and our relationship to that which is truly important in the work - without the G-word. And there are plenty who do. That’s genuinely fantastic. That’s the first thing.

The second element in an existential Judaism is an awareness that the most important things in life can’t be measured.  This is the thing that most drives me to staggered bemusement when I encounter the blockbuster atheists who seem only to value that which can be measured and double-blind tested under laboratory conditions.
I know measuring is terribly important. I don’t want to take a train across a bridge that hasn’t been measured and checked to beyond any conceivable chance of collapse. Of course measurement is important. But you can’t measure a life in the same way you can stress test a bridge. You can’t measure love, happiness or kindness. Or rather something rather sad happens to these things if we pretend they can be force between callipers. The more we measure the more we turn everything in our life into commodities - just other things in a world of so many things. That’s not the way to treat that which is most important - our relationships in particular.

In one of the most famous tales in the Talmud the great Rabbi, Shammai loses his temper and ends up beating a stranger with a question with the Talmudic equivalent of a ‘2 by 4.’ I wonder if the violent response might be occasioned by Shammai’s profession. He’s a carpenter - indeed that’s what he’s doing with the 2 by 4 in the first place. And carpenters do a whole lot of measuring. I’ve known some lovely carpenters, but I wonder if Shammai was just too used to measuring things, and began to measure people in the same way he measured joists and beams. Hence the frustration with anyone who didn’t come up to the expected height - whack. Hillel - who brings the poor soul under the wings of the Divine Presence - is presses olive oil. That’s a job which entails drawing sweetness from something that seems intolerably bitter. Pressing olives is probably not a bad training in valuing things that cannot be seen and none the less needs to be valued.

My great teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote[1] about the ‘wind that sighed before the dawn.’ He noted that if we treat the phrase as a description, it’s meaningless. But if we consider it indicative - if we think these words point towards that which cannot be accurately pinned down technically, it’s a great phrase. It’s a line from Lewis Morris’ Le Vent de L’Esprit

The wind that sighs before the dawn
Chases the gloom of night,
The curtains of the East are drawn,
And suddenly—'t is light

That’s the sort of stuff that can evoke wonder and drawing from us an amazement that is the greatest achievement of our human grasp.

Believe in the sights that cannot be seen, the sounds that cannot be heard and the emotions that cannot be plotted on some fancy electronic feed that won’t tell you anything about the quality of your love or the wisdom of your soul.

If it helps to count God among the things you value, the things you believe in, that do not belong in the category of things that can be measured, but are still important. Great. If it doesn’t, if the G-word gets you feeling hostile or embarrassed or preferring some quotidian explanation of why we are the way we are, then don’t use the G-word. I don’t mind. Really.

Just don’t consider you are the most important thing in the universe you inhabit, and value the stuff that can’t be measured.

And the third thing.
The third key element of an existentially valuable Jewish existence is to believe that actions matter. What we spend our money on matters, what we eat matters, the way we speak matters, the way we treat people - strangers and friends matter.
We’ll do the prayer tomorrow, the Unataneh Tokef, there’s a reference to a books recalling our every action, even the forgotten one and the Hebrew reads - Hotem Yad Kol Adam Bo - the seal of every human’s hand is within it. You don’t have to believe in literal books. You don’t have to believe in God as some kind of cosmic accountant running profit and loss accounts on our merits and failings. But if you want to be a good Jew - frankly if you want to be a good human being - you need to live as if the actions you take leave behind some kind of cosmic fingerprint. You have to believe that just as the wind sighs before the dawn, you write a book with Hotem Yad Bo - a book sealed in the trace of your actions and inactions.

Here’s the tricky piece - about actions. I think you need to believe that your actions matter even if no-one else sees you doing the thing you do. In fact particularly these things matters; the things you think you can get away with. I was having a conversation with a friend about trolling, and the way the anonymity of the internet seems to have begat an overspill of nastiness into public society. That’s bad. The hidden nastiness has had very public consequences.
The Jewish understanding of the significance of these hidden actions gets its fullest expression in the understanding of a Biblical verse which prohibits placing a stumbling block before a blind person. ­Lo Titen Michshol Lifnei Iver (Lev 19:14). The blind person, of course, can’t see the stumbling block infront of them. And the Biblical verse goes on to say, ‘I am the Lord your God’ which the Rabbis understand to mean - God watches, even if you think God doesn’t.

But you don’t need to bring God into the picture. You can hold tight to a pithy aphorism about butterflies and hurricanes. You can hold tightly to a notion of God who knows and is the force of order in amongst all this chaos. But you have to believe that actions matter.

If you live your life locating the centre of the Universe as ‘not you,’ if you can value the hidden things as more important than the things that can be measured and if can live as though every act is cosmically significant. That’s great.

And that is really what I wanted to say tonight. If there is someone at home who wants to hear what the Rabbi spoke about in Shul this evening, tell ‘em this. Tell ‘em that the Rabbi said that if you lived life with a sense of humility, if you cared about the things that couldn’t be measured and if you lived life as if every action counted then, the Rabbi told you, you didn’t have to worry about the whole God thing in Judaism. Be my guest.

But here’s the kicker. Here’s the bit for anyone still paying attention. You’re a smart lot, you’ve probably figured it out already. The things I’ve been talking about are the very essence of a perfectly noble theology. This is what Judaism means when it talks about centrality of God. This is what I mean when I say I do believe in God. I believe in God as the point of ultimate otherness. I believe in God as the location of ultimate immeasurable value. I deem God as mechanism of record keeping of all actions. Zeh Hu Zeh. This is that. A belief in God isn’t an abdication the belief that science matters. It’s not a foxhole in which to crawl when things get hard. It certainly isn’t a children’s story. It’s a description of ultimacy, value and meaning. Almost a location.

I’m aware this might sound a little new fangled, or heretical, but it’s what the Rabbis of the Talmud, I think were getting at when they began to use the Hebrew term HaMakom as the word they used when they referred to God. HaMakom means ‘The place.’ God is the place where ultimacy resides.

I believe in God. I got over my nervousness and fear of the word, got on with my Rabbinic studies and here we all are. I began to find insight and strength from allowing myself to feel more at ease with the whole God thing - even if my beliefs in how we got to be here haven’t really changed. I used to believe I wasn’t the centre of the Universe, I used to value the things that can’t be measured and I used to take action seriously. I still do. I used not to take the G-word seriously, but now I do. I don’t think it’s as necessary as some make it out to be. It’s not as necessary as some other more important stuff. But it’s not as far away as some would suggest either. It is, in the sense of that extraordinary verse at the heart of my sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, not in the heavens, it’s not so far that you have to leave your senses or your rationality to find it. It’s very close, in your heart. And the pathway to my feeling a relationship with God are these very three elements of a Jewish life lived well.

You don’t have to believe in God. It’s not necessary, but it could be.

Chatimah Tovah

[1] In God in Search of Man p.182
[2] Le Vent de L’Esprit by Lewis Morris

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