Rabbi Jonah Layman
Shaare Tefila Congregation - Silver Spring, Maryland
Rosh Hashana 2001/5762 – Day 2
Can We Still Believe in God?
One of the most heart wrenching questions I heard the family of Darin Pontell ask is “how could God do this?” “What kind of God”, they asked, “would cause planes to crash into buildings?” Both Devora’s mother and Darin’s mother were raised in Orthodox homes. They were taught the traditional Jewish theology. They learned to accept that not only is God all powerful and all knowing, not only is God the creator, but also that God continues to intervene in our lives and control the events around us. God knows and determines when earthquakes will strike and volcanoes will erupt. God knew when a Hitler would rise to power and God determined that six million Jews would perish in the Holocaust. God planned that the planes would crash last week and that over 5,000 people would die.
They were also taught that we as individual Jews have only a modicum of control over God’s script. If we do good, observe the mitzvot – the commandments – and resolve to always follow in God’s way then we should expect good to happen to us. It is as if our belief and observance serve as a force field to protect us from the calamities around us. That’s the way it is supposed to work.
It is when bad things happen to good people that this traditional understanding is challenged. The rabbis centuries ago offered three possible answers. One is that the good people really deserved it. That’s what Job’s friends told him. When Job bemoaned the loss of his wife, children, and property he couldn’t understand what he could have done to deserve such punishment. He thought he was innocent. His friends told him no matter how innocent he thought he was, he must have done something wrong.
Another response is that God works in mysterious ways. That’s in fact how the book of Job ends. God talks to Job and rhetorically asks him, “do you know when the goats will mate? Do you know when the snow will fall?” God has the master plan and we only see and live a small part of it. How could we dare question God’s master plan? The little bit we see around us – though incredibly tragic and horrible – is just a drop in the bucket compared to what God sees. The time we spend on this earth is just a fraction of God’s eternity. How dare we question God’s ways?
The final traditional response to why bad things happen to good people is that God loves us. Obviously, that seems contradictory. If God loves us then the assumption is that God would want good things to happen to us. The assumption is that the bad things would happen to the bad people. But, the rabbis teach us that God wants us to believe in Him and have faith in Him. God wants us to observe the commandments. Evil people don’t believe in God. Wicked people don’t observe the rituals and practices of Judaism. If bad things were to happen to them then there would be no chance for them to become good. While they act badly there is still hope they could repent. If God would cause bad things to happen to them there would be no hope for repentance. God knows that good people will always be good, and God knows how much evil we can endure. The evil that happens to good people is called yisurin shel ahava – love torture. God tortures us because God loves us. It’s like the father crying as he spanks his child saying, “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” God knows we need to suffer in order to learn a lesson. God knows we need to suffer in order to appreciate life. God knows we need to suffer in order to grow.
This traditional theology can be very comforting. It teaches us that God is in charge. Even though the world can seem chaotic to us and life can seem out of control, it can be comforting to know there is an eternal, master plan.
It’s also comforting to know that God loves us. In our times of deepest grief when we feel alone, the tradition reassures us that God is there. God wants us to have faith, God wants us to find meaning and joy in life, God wants us to feel loved.
But then 4 planes crash, 5,000 lives are lost, and we question. We can understand and accept the traditional theology when our pet goldfish dies or when we watch the Discovery channel and see lions killing gazelles. We can even accept the theology when our parents die in their old age. That’s the way of the world and people die and animals get killed. It is much harder to accept when young people die or are stricken with terminal illnesses. It is much harder to accept when the Pentagon goes up in flames and our own 26 year old Darin Pontell is missing. Now we are theologically challenged.
There is an underlying premise that needs to be clarified before we can overcome the challenge our tradition places before us. We need to be sure we understand what the purpose of religion is. I view religion as a way to provide eternal meaning to our lives. There are a number ways that we can find meaning in life. Some find it in science. Some see the big bang theory and the laws of physics and nature as laws that explain life.
Some find comfort in the philosophies of Aristotle or Locke or Rousseau who explained the ethical and moral foundation that society needs to have in order to function. Those philosophers understood the potential society had to structure our lives and serve the greater good and many lead their lives today accordingly.
But philosophy and science are man-made. They are subject to the whims and fancies of society. They are subject to new advances in research. Certainly some values are constant, but the definitions of those values or the flexibility of those values are subject to generational change. One generation’s modesty is another generation’s pornography. One generation’s compassion is another generation’s cruelty.
Religion attempts to overcome the limitations of humanity. Religion attempts to provide a structure of life, a foundation to living, which is eternal. The eternal concepts of truth, ethical values, and faith allow them to survive the whims and casualties of every generation.
The problem is that religion is eternal but our life on earth is short. Religion is supposed to provide meaning and comfort. It is supposed to answer the meaning of life. Yet our life is so short. We don’t have the luxury of living for 1,000 years to enable us to put such enormous tragedies in a broader context. How can someone who lives 80 or 90 years ever be expected to contextualize the events of last week? It is beyond our capacity to do so. We need religion to help us do that. And if the traditional religious answers are not satisfactory then we have the right and the obligation to reinterpret them. Religion serves our purpose and we need to feel comforted and enriched by it, no matter how long we live.
Jewish concepts have been challenged and reinterpreted throughout our history. Our system is based on debate and evaluation. Whenever the rabbis debated points of Jewish law or theology they would tell us both the majority opinion and the minority opinion. If Judaism meant for there to be only one possible interpretation and if Judaism demanded that we believe and behave in one way, then only one opinion would have been recorded. The purpose of both opinions is to teach us that in that particular generation one opinion was more acceptable than the other. But there could come a time when the minority opinion would prevail. If so then the rabbis wanted us to know that there already was discussion about it and an acknowledgment of the possibility centuries ago.
So too with theology. The rabbis recognized that our time on earth is limited. The rabbis also saw terrible tragedies in their day. The destruction of the Temple, the persecution and murder of thousands of Jews, the exile from Israel were horrific events that still reverberate in our prayerbook and in our rituals. The theology they developed to allow them both to cope and to remain ardently Jewish was that traditional theology I presented. Yet it is clear that is not the only option.
There are certain basic givens that need to be part of any theology. We need to believe in one God. We need to believe that God is the creator of the universe and is powerful. And we need to feel commanded in some way to perform the mitzvot. If we are challenged by the traditional theology, if we cannot answer why God would crash planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside, then we need to develop a new interpretation – as long as the interpretation maintains the basic givens.
Based on all that I have seen as your rabbi – and you know I’ve seen a lot – I firmly and absolutely believe that God did not cause those planes to crash. I absolutely believe that God did not place Darin Pontell in the Pentagon in order to be hit by an American Airlines jet. I cannot believe that God acts that way. I cannot allow myself to put last week’s events into a broader context. I cannot allow myself to say God works in mysterious ways and who am I to question God. It doesn’t comfort me it only disquiets and enrages me. God is the source of compassion and mercy. God is the source of justice and peace. I did not see that God last Tuesday.
However, despite last Tuesday’s events, I still firmly and absolutely believe in God. You’ve heard me talk about this belief before and you know that it is not my own. It is based on the writings of Rabbis Harold Kushner and Abraham Joshua Heschel. It has been developed and refined based on events that occur and conversations I have had. It is a theology that is still a work in progress.
I believe in a God that created the universe – a basic Jewish given. I believe in an all-powerful God – another basic given. However, I believe that God created this world with imperfection on purpose. God could have created a perfect world – a world without evil, a world without death, a world without misery. But God chose not too in order for us to better appreciate what good, life, and beauty are. Without the imperfections we wouldn’t appreciate the perfection when we see it.
With these imperfections come great tragedies and calamities. But God didn’t directly cause them to happen. The system is broken on purpose and our responsibility is to constantly fix it. We are created in God’s image with therefore God-like potential. We are also created to be God’s partner in creation. We have the obligation to complete the process of creation and we have been moderately successful. We have found cures to some diseases and vaccines for others. We have found ways to predict when hurricanes will strike and thus prevent greater damage. But as yet we have not found ways to eradicate humanity’s evil from our midst. We have not found ways to subdue humanity’s evil inclination. We have not found ways to allow our drive to do good to wipe out Man’s cruelty to his fellow Man. Therefore, the evil that showed its face last Tuesday wasn’t directly caused by God. Last Tuesday’s events showed us what can tragically happen when we let evil get out of control.
Not only isn’t God directly involved then, it puts the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. Instead of traditionally reacting by saying, “it’s in God’s hand” we now are called to action. We need to pursue justice to the ends of the earth and we need to work for the cause of good all the time.
If God wasn’t directly involved in those events and if God has stepped back from creation, where, then, do we find God? I find God in the places where people are fulfilling their God-like potential. I find God in Devora’s home as her family and friends comfort her and each other. I find God in the heroism of the rescue workers who have worked tirelessly searching for bodies. I find God in our fair and equitable pursuit of justice – in our way of showing how a nation based on democracy and freedom stands for justice. I find God in the overwhelming outpouring of support from everyone who has donated supplies to the rescue workers and to the families of the victims and those missing. I find God in those who have waited in long lines at hospitals and centers to donate blood. I find God in the services around the world that were held in support of us. I find God in the nations of the world who are rallying around our cause.
If I believe in a God that doesn’t intervene then the natural question is why do I pray? Many of our prayers ask God to forgive, to have mercy, to heal, to restore. The traditional Jewish God could respond to those requests. The Jewish God I believe in doesn’t. I don’t advocate changing the words of the prayers, I never will. There is an awesome power to reciting words that have been recited for hundreds if not thousands of years. There is majesty to singing the melodies that have been sung for hundreds of years. Those are very spiritual connections we make today and every day we pray. But, when I pray I reinterpret the words. Instead of asking God to heal, I ask for the ability to connect to my own internal healing powers, that the ill can connect to his or her own healing powers, that the doctors and health care workers work to the best of their abilities, that the family of the sick provide the support the sick person needs. Instead of asking God to forgive me, I ask that I recognize the things I have done wrong and that way be able to feel a sense of forgiveness. Prayer for me is a form of introspection – a way to connect to the God within me. The words, melodies, and community, all aid in the process of connecting to the Divine within me.
Finally, I do feel that I am commanded to do the Jewish things I do – another of the basic givens. I don’t believe that God literally commanded us to observe the mitzvot. I don’t believe God literally spoke the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai. But I do believe that Moses and the people felt God’s presence at Mt. Sinai. I do believe they responded to God’s presence by creating a system of behavior that would reflect their belief in God. I perform the mitzvot in order to have an opportunity to feel God’s presence. That is their purpose. The mitzvot are opportunities for spirituality. When I do them I feel a sense of responsibility and purpose. I need to do them to connect to my people, to connect to my heritage, and to connect to God. That need is what commanded means to me.
This then is the theology that has allowed me to remain sane this past week. It has allowed me to remain unshaken in my faith and has allowed me to celebrate Rosh Hashana.
As a religious Jew I know that I need God in my life. I know that without God life would be meaningless. I know that my belief in God needs to weather the storms of tragedies that I have experienced. I find that this theology works for me. I know the traditional theology works for other people. And there are other interpretations that could work for others too.
I hope and pray that we find the God within us in these trying times. I pray that we continue to find comfort in our family and friends. And I pray that we continue to be proud to be Americans. May the God within us allow us to see the beauty and wonder of the new year. Amen.