Message from Rabbi Weiss - June 2018

“Do I have to believe in God to be Jewish?”

 This is a question that I have been hearing a lot lately.  Judaism is often explained as “deed not creed.”  You demonstrate your Jewish identity not by adhering to certain dogmas but rather by the actions in which you engage and the way in which you live your life.  Judaism is more than a religion, it is also a culture and a way of life.  Jews may identify themselves as agnostic or even atheist.  They may say they are culturally Jewish but “not really religious.”  But what about belief in God? Is it a requirement?

As part of Vision 2020, I have been a part of various discussions attempting to identify Beth Ami’s core values.  The question came up about whether a belief in God should be listed as one of our synagogue’s core values.  There is apprehension that by listing a belief in God in our values statement, we would alienate or exclude certain members who may not agree with the statement. Yet, as a rabbi, personally, the missing presence of God from our Temple’s core values was troubling.

Traditionally, Judaism is based on the threefold concept of God, Torah, and Israel: Israel meaning not just the land of Israel but Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. In modern times, and especially in liberal circles, no one is “kicked out” of the tribe for declaring a disbelief in God, yet, in the Bible, insulting God was punishable by stoning. Is that why many of us don’t articulate our questions, even doubts as to God’s existence?  Perhaps we are not expecting stones to be hurled at us but rather it would raise a question of fitting in? We are not the first to struggle with the challenges of personal belief.

In the middle of the 20th century, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan founded Reconstructionist Judaism in an attempt to “reconstruct” our understanding about American Judaism so that it spoke more meaningfully to the 20th-century world.  He explained his belief that Judaism was a “religious civilization” emerging from the history and culture of the Jewish people. As a “civilization” it was constantly evolving, and it was the goal of Jewish thinkers at any given time to interpret Judaism in the light of contemporary life and thought without abandoning its traditional values.

This is precisely the purpose of Vison 2020, a visioning and strategic planning initiative in which Beth Ami is currently engaged.  We have asked the entire congregation to participate in the holy work of bringing our Temple’s values into contemporary society.

In Rabbi Kaplan’s case, he decided to take the focus away of God and instead focus on the concept of Israel—that being Am Yisrael, the people of Israel.  To Kaplan, being Jewish is more than just a religion, it is a people hood, or a community. While himself being an observant Jew, Kaplan attempted to shift the focus from the supernatural, aka God, to the more cultural Am Israel, aka Jewish peoplehood.

You may notice in our prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, the language that we use to express God has changed.  The varied interpretations allow for diverse understandings of our connection with God. But to me, it is critical that God is still in our prayer book.

Just as Judaism is more than a religion, a synagogue is more than a JCC.  In addition to being a Jewish community center, I feel that it should also be a place of spirituality—a place where we experience God’s presence in our interaction with others, have our souls stirred by music and prayer, and where we learn and engage in words of Torah.

In his book, Guide of the Perplexed, medieval commentator Moses Maimonides explained that there are three ways in which an individual approaches God.  The first thinks of God as incorporeal, meaning without a physical body.  The second, is what we would in modern times call agnostic, he claims not to know. And the third believes God has a body and will seek and approach God based on this belief.”  According to Maimonides, the first man is closest to God, and the third man the farthest (1:59)

What does this mean? Beyond being a polemic against the trinity of Christianity in which God has a physical manifestation, I believe what is significant is that it is saying it is ok to not know.   And the most knowledge of God we can have is “what God is not”.  The Jewish Mystics, the Kabbalists, called God, Ayin, No Thing.  They were not saying that God had no value, but rather that there was nothing in which God could be compared.

When we call ourselves Israel, we are not saying we are citizens of the State of Israel.  To be Israel is to be a descendant of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.  Yisrael, means one who “wrestles with God,” and it refers to a nocturnal battle that Jacob is believed to have with himself and God.   Being Jewish means that we are challenged to wrestle with God, our belief, our understanding, and our conception.  We are allowed to be unsure and questioning.  What I am not comfortable with is completely removing the Divine from the equation.

For countless years, Jewish theologians have been trying to understand God.  For some, God is creation, as seen each day in act of the sun coming up in the morning and setting at night. For others, God was the prime mover, the catalyst who began the world.  For some God doesn’t connect with us on a personal level and is more detached from our daily living. And for others, they feel a personal connection to God either on a daily basis or at sporadic moments. 

The point is, as a Rabbi and as a Jew, a belief God is part of my core values, but a synagogue can be inclusive enough to cast a big enough tent that it allows for a lot of different understandings about what God is.  We are so afraid to talk about God because we think it will be divisive, but we shouldn’t shy away from the opportunity to explore our sense of spirituality.  

So, do you have to believe in God to be a Jew? I believe that being Jewish means to be Israel, one who wrestles with God and, therefore, as Jews it is ok to not be certain about our beliefs. However, I would suggest that we should be willing to explore the possibility of God.