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Peter J. Rubinstein
A Journey to Faith: Needing God (Rosh HaShanah 5772)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 28, 2011

There are unusually powerful moments when I’m confounded as to what to say.  In some ways, it was best said in the letter you received by e-mail on Wednesday of this week informing you of the decision that I’ve made.  But the wonderful part of being a Jew is that secrets, even when one doesn’t know what to say, are often revealed to us when we read and study Torah.

For the first time in my life and in my Rabbinate I feel compelled to speak directly and publicly about…God. While I’ve referenced God in almost every sermon, I presume it would be difficult for you to know what I believe about God. Perhaps it is equally as difficult for you to say what you believe, if you believe in God at all. Typically, we liberal Jews are not comfortable talking about the Divine.

Rabbi Jamie Korngold, whom I taught through her Confirmation years, the author of The God Upgrade, proposes that “rabbis can’t talk openly about God because they fear they will be fired. Their congregants don’t talk about God because they think they will be shown the door.”

I promise that neither of these things will happen.

In truth, I didn’t always believe in God and I certainly did not grow up wanting to be a rabbi. To the contrary; as some of you know, my innate fascination was with science, and I was good at it. As a child, my retreat was not playing ball in the school yard, and certainly not doing Religious School homework (which I hated). Rather I loved to sequester myself and spend hours deciphering solutions to mathematical problems. In contemporary parlance, I was proudly a “nerd.”

I subscribed to the principle that every cause has an effect, and that there is a logic for why and what happens in this universe. I believed only in what my senses or logic could explain and prove. Nothing else had credence or reality for me.

God had no place in that framework. Additionally, like many of you, God was not discussed or referenced in my home (except by way of cursing). There was no talk about God in my Religious School except in the formulaic, though elegant, language of the Union Prayer Book. The totally insipid, illogical Bible stories which were foisted upon us in Religious School year after year, as though saying them over and over again would make them more palatable, didn’t foster belief.

Upon going to college, I was abysmally devoid of anything approaching a God-view. I didn’t have the language or concepts to answer questions from well-meaning Christian friends as to what Jews believe. God was still completely irrelevant to me. While I was certain of my cultural, ethnic, historical, familial Jewishness, I had no need for God or faith or belief in order to be a Jew.

However, the fact that some of my really close smart Christian friends had an unqualified faith in God was deeply unsettling. How could these intelligent people believe in such an illogical, ludicrous concept? That’s how my investigation into God began. 

There were no Jewish Studies classes in the religion department at Amherst. My default was to take courses in New Testament thought, liberal Christian theology, and eastern religions. I took every class offered, especially those taught by a man I reference simply to honor him, Professor John Pemberton, an expert in Christian thought. Pemberton had a singular impact on my life. I wrote my thesis on William Faulkner and Paul Tillich, who was a contemporary liberal Christian systematic theologian. Tillich believed that there were people who thought logically about God. I did not know any Jew who did. 

My investigation about God had become so meaningful that after college graduation, I postponed my entry into a joint MD-PhD program to which I had been accepted. Instead, after a conversation with him at a West Side bar, I applied to the HUC-JIR to study with the great theologian, and terrific man, Dr. Eugene Borowitz. 

That’s how I arrived here, somewhat through the back door, trying to find God and to figure out what I believe—a project in which I’m still fully engaged. 

So, this is my hope: that as I speak about my faith, it helps you to reflect on your own beliefs about God, with all the expectations and disappointments that faith engenders. In that regard, I recommend to you the most recent edition of our congregation’s publication, HaShiur, which you recently received, on the topic of faith. Perhaps God might even become a matter of conversation among us and with our families. 

Jews have always been in search. Judaism doesn’t provide catechisms, doctrines, or certainty. In Judaism, none of us can be wrong. That’s why we have so many books, each writer thinking they are right.

Our liturgy does not define God with precision. I do not accept God literally, as portrayed in the Torah, as a deity with anthropomorphic behavior, anthropopathic emotions, or as the judicial dispenser of reward or punishment in ways that I cannot comprehend and totally reject. The book of Job already debunked that suffering was punishment for wrong-doing.

My friend Larry Kushner said, “Many Jews have a dormant image of God, which they probably formed in childhood. And, while they matured many other ideas about the world, they never grew their God image enough to meet their needs as adults. When life happens, and it always does, they blame Judaism or a God they can’t access.”

So here is why I believe that God is real:

1. I need God for moral anchors and conviction.

In this country, we are caught in a significant public dilemma about ethics. On the one side of the ethical spectrum are those who believe that ethics are a matter of private feeling or inclination, a humanistic ethical relativism with no consideration of a firm ethical code or shared moral obligation.

New York Times commentator David Brook reported recently on the state of American youth as proposed by the sociologist Christian Smith from Notre Dame. (I suggest that his findings on youth today would be no different than a study of the same generation forty years ago.) He states that when asked about drunk driving, cheating in school, or cheating on a partner, as one interviewee put it, “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often.” According to Smith’s study, moral choices among America’s youth are a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” they respond; “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Or as one respondent remarked, “I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it… so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”  On this end of the ethical extreme in this country, there are people who will determine their behavior according to the single measure of what makes them happy. Feeling good is their single moral guide.

On the other end of the ethical spectrum are those who speak with presumed moral certainty. With unimpeachable belief that they are not only speaking for themselves, they say they are channeling God’s words. It is an alarming crusade. It is a frightening spectacle. For these people, there is no plausibility of compromise or discussion. For these spokespeople for God, there is no argument that can be amply persuasive, no circumstance that be sufficiently impactful, no collective well-being that can be so urgent to change their heart, thought, or position. These religious missionaries, increasingly in politicians’ clothes, hold their perceived truth tightly in clenched fist. Even as a minority, whether in this country or in Israel, they are tyrannical in the name of God’s word.

So those are the two extremes of moral debate in this nation: on one side the ethical absolutist who speaks for God, on the other the humanistic relativist who speaks only for him/herself.

I find myself, and I consider most of us here, in between. Our Torah mandates an ethical code. We read of it regularly and will again on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Our moral anchors evolve from our people’s experience with God and they are always in support of the common good. We Reform Jews apply our moral standards to complex and evolving circumstances for the well-being of the nations in which we live, the societies in which we are involved, and the Jewish people to whom we have responsibility.

Through responsa literature and textual investigation, we evolve positions applying our traditional ethical lessons according to the challenges of the age. We do not presume to speak for God. 

We cannot speak only for ourselves. We trumpet righteousness for the sake of those who have no voice. We pursue goodness for the sake of those who have no power. We promote policy for the common good of all people which I believe is what this nation, this world, needs.

As Rabbi Irwin Kula instructs, “Being happy isn’t only about feeling good; it’s about doing good.” (241)

I believe that because there is a God who is the foundation of ethics, our Jewish moral sensitivity has authority. My right to say that I have behaved well, my measure of when I have misbehaved relies on a moral code with divine authority. Dostoyevsky wrote, “If there is no God, all is permitted.” 

I need to believe that our Jewish morality evolved from a source beyond humanity that is God. How I understand that code as applied to any circumstance is, in a colleague’s words, my “sacred best guess.” [Rev. Amandus Derr] I need God to be my anchor of decency. Otherwise, I am left to my own foundationless inclinations. That would not be good. I need God as the source of morality and I need God for ethical judgment.

2. I need God for strength and courage.

Like you, I suffer misgivings, times of distress and sadness. There are moments when I ache to just make it through the day, to hold back tears. 

Earlier this month, we commemorated the tenth anniversary of the reopening of our sanctuary, devastated by fire in 1998. Some of you may have been here for the service and witnessed the extraordinary set of photos of the fire and destruction of the building. When my colleagues and I sat in the darkened sanctuary a day before the service to review the pictorial record, I felt an unexpected engulfing mournful sadness. Despite myself, I cried. 

The images of the fiery blaze lapping from under the roof line of this Sanctuary, the devastated skeleton of this building, the collapsed ceiling, ashen pews, nothing remained but destruction and four barely standing walls and the ark. Only those of us who were here thirteen years ago remember the devastation and sadness. But I had never cried. I remember standing with the fire fighters on that Shabbat evening and realizing that my life had changed. I wondered how I would go on. 

I prayed. I closed my eyes while the smoke filled our nostrils and I asked God for strength, strength to help this congregation, strength to make it through what I knew lay ahead, strength to shape the future and to lead into the traumatic unknown.

I needed to know that I was not alone. Along with my wife and my family, with you and the good people of this city and nation, I needed God. I need God especially in those private moments, when without any certainty I doubt myself.

I need God when I stand next to parents at the grave of their child. I need God when I am with you in times of your searing pain.

We all have those monstrous moments, the unbearable horrible news of illness when it strikes those we love, the unspeakable if not unimaginable tragedies when life and love are wrenched from us, the wretched days of sadness when we can’t imagine our lives ever getting better.

I need God so that I am not alone. In those times, I pray the last line of Adon Olam: “Into your hands I entrust my spirit, when I sleep and when I wake, and with my spirit my body also, Adonai Li v’lo ira, God I beg of you to be with me so that I will not be afraid.”

I need God for strength and courage.

3. I need God for Hope.

Just before the tenth commemoration of September 11, one of our members sent a note to a group of his friends who attend Shabbat services together regularly. He reflected on current dismal news and wrote in part:

To be honest, I’m nervous. And a little unsure. Ok, more than just a little. Europe is a mess. Greece is going to default. Spain and Portugal are in deep trouble. True unemployment in the US is well in excess of 10%. Troubling. Iran is developing weaponizable nuclear material. Very troubling. In Israel there are barbarians at the gate everywhere we turn. Very, very troubling. Even Turkey is turning its back.  And this weekend we mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11 with the commencement of the proceedings marked with the announcement of a “credible, plausible” terrorist threat involving car bombs in this city. Very, very, very troubling.

These seem to be precarious times. We know that. We deeply feel that.

And in such a moment, we suffer malaise, a failure of confidence that we can get out of this mess.  We may still expect immediate and complete fixes and they don’t seem to be forthcoming.

We would like easy answers, all-encompassing grandiose policies which in some messianic miracle would be the cure for the ills of our economy and our nation’s challenges, even peace in the Middle East.  There may not be a summary prescription. 

Yet no matter how dire it all seems, Jews cannot surrender to the way things are. That is a great lesson of our history.

Remember the image of our ancestors who stood at the shores of the sea facing death under the chariot wheels of Pharaoh’s pursuing murderous troops as they furiously swooped down upon the Israelites from behind. And in front of our ancestors, death awaited in the depths of the Red Sea. Caught in the pincer of murder from behind and drowning in front, survival seemed hopeless.

We know the end. We say it is miraculous. We say it is God’s work.  But the Midrash reminds us that only when Nachson, this one man, walked neck-deep into the Yam Suf (Red Sea) did the waters part, providing the Israelites escape and entry to their destiny. It took one man. Therein lies the story of Jewish life. 

No matter how bleak the outlook, or hopeless the circumstances, or weary our souls, redemption is our story. The courage to go on has been our incredible miraculous narrative and reason we are here.

And for those of us who, despite every rational, logical reason not to believe that God will intercede in our personal lives as a response to our petitions for health and strength and success, our faith allows us to believe in the improbable. 

That’s why, despite what doctors tell us or those we love about how much time we have left when we are ill, or forecasters predict about how much time our economy has left, or pundits guarantee about the future of our nation, we nevertheless pray for the miraculous because there is always the chance that God is listening and will act. 

Or at least those prayers will give us strength, the strength to enter the water and change history. As one of our members said to me, “If there’s a choice between belief or not believing, what’s the downside of believing?”

For us, a far better world is just around the corner. For us, our history of survival is miraculous and against the odds. For us, despite logical cause, we pray with the hope that God may intercede on our behalf. We believe in redemption because we have lived through it. 

Every day we sing the words of Mi Chamochah, the refrain of an exhausted band of Israelites who, despite every reason to believe they would perish, did not. They carried the story of Egyptian bondage in their hearts to teach us never, ever to lose hope. I need God every day for that hope, believing that as in our people’s story, life will go on, and it can be better.

My faith in God, my hope, is born out of Jewish history.

4. I need God for wonder.

The author Jamie Korngold, who calls herself the Adventure Rabbi, muses, “Do you know those sudden moments of connection, where you feel linked to something bigger than yourself? Perhaps standing on top of a mountain? Talking with a dear friend? Watching the birth of your son or daughter? Touching the Torah for the first time? These are the moments in which we meet God.” [The God Upgrade, p. 5]

In a primal way, this is a fundamental experience of God. At least it was for our people for whom creation itself was the profound mystery of a power greater than themselves. Some of you may remember Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s routine in which Reiner asks Brooks, the 2013-year-old man, whether back then he believed in anything, any kind of superior being. “Yes we believed in the leader of our tribe—a big guy named Philip, very big, big beard, big chest. He could kill you. But we didn’t worship him for too long because one day Philip was hit by lightning and we looked up and we said ‘there is something bigger than Phil.’”

Well, we know there is something bigger than Phil, bigger than me, bigger than any of us. We know it when the mystery of creation and life takes our breath away. We know it when we lie on dew-covered fields and search the profound depth and beauty of a cloudless night sky. 

We know it in what we feel for those we love in their best and worst times. We know something greater in love itself. 

We know it in the power of nature, the best of human goodness and the improbable times when we do what is difficult but right rather than what is easy and questionable. 

I love believing that my life adds to this world according to some plan of which I have an inkling but which I will never satisfactorily know or completely understand. That is the wonder for which I thank God.

The search for God is our destiny. The joy of Jewish life is that we have room in our tent for those who do not believe as well as those who do. That I have no certainty about what God is helps me as Rabbi to affirm those who do not know or care whether God is. But this I know: I believe in God completely. I need God in my life. 

And every time I make difficult ethical choices, when I gaze upon those I love and now even grandchildren, whenever I marvel at a person’s genuine goodness and decency, when I am lonely and I feel strength, burdened and feel hopeful, am mired in life’s uncertainties and look at the stars, there God is. 

Every time I gather with you in the spectacular drama of Jewish survival, and even when I cry and laugh, I thank God for it all and I believe…and it is a blessing, a blessing I wish for all of us.

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