A High Holiday Sermon delivered by by Rabbi Sid Schwarz at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD
Yom Kippur 2007
Some of you will remember the old Art Linkletter show. His signature piece on the show was his interviews with children which he later compiled in a book called Kids Say the Darndest Things. I thought of this when I recently picked up a book entitled, Children’s Letters to God. Here are a few excerpts:
- Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy. Joyce.
- Maybe Cain and Abel wouldn’t kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. Larry
- Who draws the lines around countries? Nan
- Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now? Anita
- My brother told me about being born, but it doesn’t sound right. Marsha
- I didn’t think that purple went with orange until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was cool. Eugene."
Be honest. How many of you would like to ask at least one of these questions?
God Bashing Sells Books
This past year, three books that challenged conventional religious beliefs about God all made the New York Times bestseller list. A British evolutionary biologist named Richard Dawkins wrote The God Delusion. Dawkins sees no scientific evidence of God as a supernatural creator, and therefore concludes that there is no reason for God to be the focal point of religious worship.
Sam Harris argues in The End of Faith that religious beliefs are at the root of human violence and man’s inhumanity to man. Religion has divided the world into discreet communities, each with an exaggerated sense of moral righteousness. He argues that these communities are essentially irreconcilable.
Third and finally, in God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens makes the case that religion gets the origin of humanity and of the world all wrong. It is not God that created human beings but the other way around. As an atheist, Hitchens is willing to tolerate people who take their faith seriously, but of course, he does not believe that those same faithful would extend similar tolerance to an atheist.
Who is buying these books? Gallup polls tell us that 87% Americans believe that God wrote the Bible. It seems unlikely that those Americans are big fans of these books. (Presumably, you are part of that 13% that question God’s authorship of the Bible or you are about to get very upset with the rest of this sermon.) Some suggest that the popularity of the books is a reaction to the spread of religious fanaticism in the world. Perhaps so. The state of the world is certainly enough to mess with our heads.
For Reconstructionists, these books are the equivalent of “selling ice to Eskimos.” A century ago, Mordecai Kaplan rejected these same supernatural assumptions about God. Had Kaplan taken the path of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, he would have simply trashed Judaism and put nothing in its place. But instead, he set about to “reconstruct” Judaism so that future generations of Jews—that means us and our children—could find within the faith of our ancestors a body of belief and practice that made our lives meaningful. For every traditional Jewish tenet that Kaplan rejected, he offered a positive reformulation:
- Rejection: God is not a supernatural being who can suspend the laws of nature or speak to human beings;
Affirmation: God is a force in the universe or an aspect of reality through which human beings can fulfill themselves, both ethically and spiritually.
- Rejection: Jews are not the chosen people;
Affirmation: Jews do not have a monopoly on religious truth. All religions are symbolic systems that seek to offer their respective adherents a sense of identity and purpose. We cherish Judaism and seek to live in accordance with its values and observances because it gives us a sense of belonging and purpose.
- Rejection: The Bible is not the immutable “word of God” that must be believed and observed literally;
Affirmation: The Torah is a record of the Jewish people’s search for God or for ultimate truth. For 3,000 years, the rabbis of the tradition have added their wisdom and insights into words that were believed to be God’s. We are the beneficiaries of that wisdom regardless of how the Torah was originally written. We are challenged to study and apply that wisdom to the personal and societal challenges that we face every day.
The Need for Good Questions
For most of my rabbinate I have taught that the all-too-repeated question—“Do you believe in God?”—is a lousy question. In James Fowler’s classic book, Stages of Faith, he sets forth six stages of faith development, from the most childish and basic (level 1) to the most sophisticated and nuanced (level 6). Fowler observes that few people ever reach the higher stages. The “Do you believe in God?” question is a level 1-2 question. It is asking whether one believes in a personal, supernatural God. It sets up an either/or proposition—either you believe in a supernatural God or you are an atheist.
This is where so much of the religious discourse in the world is stuck. This is the universe of discourse of the Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens books, which is why their arguments seem so irrelevant to me. Reconstructionism is a formulation that falls into higher categories in Fowler’s model. The operative question for Reconstructionists is not “Do you believe in God?” but rather, “When is God?”
God is a term that we use to probe the most ultimate questions of life. Kaplan’s genius was to dislodge the term from its literalist moorings. True, much of the world still speaks about God in literalist and supernatural terms. Dawkins, Harris,and Hitchens react to this by rejecting God. But for Jews who are thoughtful and who yearn for a more spiritual understanding of life, there is another path.
Let’s take a second look at the questions I shared at the beginning of this sermon. Behind each naïve letter from a child is a profound theological question:
- Thank you for the baby brother but what I prayed for was a puppy.
What questions does that statement evoke? Does God hear and answer my prayers? If God doesn’t work that way, why pray? We pray because we yearn to know that others share our deepest fears and our ultimate hopes. There is a sense of comfort in knowing that our tradition has articulated these feelings in prayers that have been passed down through the centuries. And we appreciate being part of a community of faith that provides a sense of strength and comfort to those who participate in it.
- When is God?
God is when we actually engage in what we express in prayer. We pray for peace and we actually work to bring it about; we pray for the courage to say “I’m sorry,” and we actually say to a loved one, “I’m sorry.” We pray for the maturity to say “I forgive you,” and we swallow our pride and the feeling of hurt that we nurtured for all too long and we say, “I forgive you.”
- Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?
What does that raise up? How do I cope with my own aging process and the sense that the years are slipping away? How do I deal with chronic pain or illness that robs me of an ability to enjoy life? How do I deal with the loss of beloved parents, spouses and even children whose companionship, love and support meant so much to me?
- When is God?
God is when a community rallies around one of its members and provides meals, phone calls, and visits. The Talmud says that each visit to a sick person takes away a sixtieth of their pain. God is when, in the face of even terminal illness, a patient can say that each day is more of a gift than he or she ever appreciated before. God is when we fully mourn the loss of loved ones but find a way to make our lives even more meaningful because love, once experienced, never disappears; it can be a continual source of strength for us.
- My brother told me about being born, but it doesn’tsound right. Or: I didn’t think that purple went with orange until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was cool.
- When is God?
God is when we can look at all of the injustice and violence in the world and still commit time and resources to expand the realm of shalom in it. God is when we can look at our own lives with all that we have to face and still count our blessings and live with a sense of gratitude. God is when we look at every birth and every child and every human being and realize that life is a miracle and treat everyone we meet b’tzelem Elohim, as if they were no less than made in the image of God. God is when we behold and appreciate the beauty and wonders of the natural world and say, without embarrassment, “God, that was cool!”
What’s God have to do with it?
Finding God in our lives does not require an embrace of the supernatural. It does require a state of mind that replaces despair with hope. It requires a state of mind that replaces cynicism with faith. It requires a state of mind that replaces apathy with discipline and resolve. The irony of our society is that most Americans affirm belief in God even as they wallow in despair, apathy, and cynicism. It would be far better to be agnostic about God’s existence but to live life affirming and manifesting all of the qualities attributed to God in our classical texts.
• When we are kind, we make God real;
• When we are compassionate, we make God real;
• When we work for justice, we make God real;
• When we ask forgiveness of the one we hurt and when we forgive the one who hurt us, we make God real.
I had a teacher of Talmud in rabbinical school who was an Orthodox rabbi. One day all of us students engaged him in a candid conversation after class. “How,” we asked, “can you teach in a seminary whose theology would be considered to be an abomination to traditional Judaism?”
“Judaism cares little about what you believe,” he said, “it cares about how you behave. I believe that I’m training you to be good rabbis so that you will help Jews behave better.” (So I am just trying to do my job!)
This year, a new book came out about Mother Theresa. It included letters from the nun to her superiors and confessors over a period of 66 years. The letters reveal that for more than half her life, Mother Theresa felt no presence of God. The more attention she attracted in the world as a symbol of faithful service to God, the more she felt like a hypocrite because she doubted the existence of both heaven and God. And yet despite the doubts that filled her heart and her mind, she engaged herself fully in tending to the poor, the sick and the dying in Calcutta. She also inspired hundreds to follow her example by the creation of the Missionaries of Charity Order.
Mother Theresa may have had a crisis of belief, but she responded to it by re-doubling her efforts to do what she knew God would want her to do as if there were a God.
A powerful lesson for us all. Despite doubts, a person of faith rolls up their sleeves and does the work that they know is righteous and good.
In a poignant passage in the Midrash, God is quoted as saying: “Would that my people forsake me and follow my ways.”
So here is the homework for this sermon: Wherever you are on the spectrum of God-believer—God-denier, during this next year:
• commit to replace despair with hope;
• commit to replace cynicism with faith;
• commit to replace apathy and a sense of resignation with discipline and resolve.
“What’s God have to do with it?” I suppose that a confirmed atheist or secular humanist would argue that the children’s questions I quoted earlier can be addressed by the human mind, that rationalism would answer the toughest questions in life. There was a time in my life that I would have said that as well. Yet the older I get, the more I find the state of the world and the condition of my life a perplexing mixture of good, bad and mystifying. God is when I am humble enough to realize that I may not have all the answers.
May the year ahead be filled with God moments for you and your loved ones.
Rabbi Sid Schwarz is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom. He is the founder/president of PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values—an organization that educates, inspires and empowers Jewish youth to a lifetime of leadership, service and advocacy on behalf of the Jewish people and for society at large. His books can be purchased through www.rabbisid.org.