Hard to believe?
Dvar Torah: Parshat Eikev. August 4, 1018
Eikev is the kind of Parsha that make it hard to believe in God. It opens with the message that if we hearken to God’s commands we will be rewarded with material and military success and fertility. And of course, we will get the corresponding punishments for lack of obedience. This theme is repeated at the end of the parsha in the second paragraph of the Shema.
This description of God doesn’t match my perception of the world that I live in. I don’t believe in a God who is so directly, measure for measure, rewarding and punishing each of my actions. Yet, this is the picture of God that appears most often in the Torah and is how I often hear God spoken about.
This depiction has led many Jews, and I suspect some of you, to decide that you don’t really believe in God.
So, this morning, I want to talk about God.
I teach a class on Jewish spirituality called Ayeka. The first year, our topic was Getting Unstuck with God. I observed that, not only did most class members have trouble getting unstuck, most had trouble even talking about God. Many said that they felt disingenuous even talking about God, since they didn’t believe in God. When I tried to introduce new ways to think about God, many felt that those weren’t really Jewish views. How did so many of us get to this place?
One problem, I believe, is that most of our conceptions of God were formed when we were children. We think that what we were taught is THE Jewish view. Since some of us have outgrown that conception we conclude that the whole enterprise is a fantasy. But there are authentic Jewish views that are not so simplistic.
For example, at Mount Sinai, one view is that the Israelites only heard the first letter of the first word which is the Aleph of Anochi. What does that mean? Aleph is a silent letter. So, what did they hear? Clearly it was not God speaking the way we understand speech.
Martin Buber wrote: “Though man is a law-receiver, God is not a law-giver. God is a living presence, not a dispenser of prescriptions.” In Buber’s view, the Jewish people interpreted their experience at Sinai by writing laws.
There is no neat way to reconcile that view with Torah as literally God’s words. But if there was a neat way to think about God, then it wouldn’t be God.
I read book recently called “What is Real”, that gave me a new way to think about why it is so hard to believe in God. It is a book for laypeople on Quantum Physics, a science that deals with subatomic particles.
At the start of my Dvar Torah, I said that measure for measure reward and punishment doesn’t match my perception of the world that I live in. We perceive the world through our senses and many ideas of God don’t fit. We trust our senses to describe reality. But perhaps our senses are wrong.
How many of you are sitting relatively still right now? Actually, you are all moving 67,000 miles per hour which is the speed the earth moves through space. When Copernicus wrote in 1543 that the earth revolves around the Sun his view was rejected partially because everyone knew from their senses that they weren’t traveling 67,000 miles per hour. They were wrong.
How well do we really understand how the world works? Let me share a few of the prevailing theories in Quantum physics. The Quantum world only exists when we measure it. It we are not measuring it, it does not exist.
If two electrons interact with each other and become entangled, then even if they are light years apart, something that affects one, will instantaneously affect the other. Even though this means that the effect is faster than the speed of light. No one knows how that is possible.
In a famous thought experiment called Schrodinger’s cat, you put a cat in a box with enough radiation that after a certain period of time there is a 50% chance the cat will be dead. According to Quantum Physics, until you open the box and look, the cat IS DEAD AND IS ALIVE. They are not saying dead or alive but dead AND alive, until we look.
Confusing findings like these has led to other theories such as the multiple universe theory. In one universe the cat is alive and in another it is dead.
This Bima, solid right? (knock on it). Actually, it’s about 99.99…with about ten 9’s after the decimal, empty space because atoms are mostly empty space. We perceive it as solid.
I share these ideas to make you feel a little less sure about how the word works. When your senses tell you things about the world, they may not be true. Or, they are true only on certain level.
The world is a complicated mysterious place. God, whatever that means, is complicated and mysterious. Too many of us have lost our appreciation for the mysterious.
God and religion have complicated relationship. At times God is represented as the force that keeps people behaving to avoid punishment. At times, God is represented as the giver of laws like Shabbat and Kashrut and the definer of right and wrong which allows us to create stable societies and communities. At times God is represented as the awesome presence we seek to give spiritual meaning to our lives and represent higher truths and morality. And at times, God is represented as a Universal God. The unity behind all of creation in which all divisions are an illusion.
Which of these is correct? None of them. God is unknowable.
But each of these conceptions of God may contain an element of truth and each of them, at different times in my life, may help me connect with the divine presence.
Rav Yisrael of Salant recognized this need for different conceptions of god when he said,
“while the ideal goal of behavior is clearly when actions stem from the higher level of Awe of Reverence, the ﬁrst step to reaching this level is nevertheless through Fear of Punishment. For without Fear of Punishment, a person will not be able to ascend to higher levels”.
The implication of his words is that our views of God are meant to develop over time.
These various conceptions often come in conflict with each other. How does a universal, unknowable God give any one people a monopoly on the truth? If, as Maimonides says, there is no relation between God and his creatures how does he give laws? The conceptions of God as law giver and punisher that leads to stable religious communities aren’t necessarily the ones that will nourish you or resonate with you. Except when it does.
God can be experienced but God cannot be understood. Does the fact that some of us haven’t experienced God in a powerful way mean that no one does? Just as elite athletes have abilities that I never did or will have, some people seem to have more innate spiritual gifts and abilities. And some people work very hard to cultivate a relationship with God.
Reb Nachman of Bratzslav would practice Hitbodedut (making oneself alone) at least one hour or more daily to pour out his thoughts to God.
We can’t know what others experience and how they receive truths? For example, I struggle with trying to believe that God cares about me as an individual. But perhaps that says more about me than God.
My purpose this morning is not to give any answers, I have none. But my hope is that you will walk away with less certainly and more questions. Such as, is there a conception of God that I could believe in, at least occasionally, that could make a difference in how I lead my life?
According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings and the world. He said,
“Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God… When one encounters the world in this way, revelation occurs…God speaks to man in the things and beings he sends him in life. Man, answers through his dealings with these things and beings.”
How would you relate to the world if you could hold this in your thoughts?
Heschel wrote, “the experience of deep awareness and wonder at the “sublime mystery” of nature and other beautiful aspects of the world…. leads to radical amazement which is an essential element of faith.
How would you show up in the world from a place of radical amazement?
Trying to hold all these notions of God in one’s mind at the same time is exhausting and confusing. It’s much easier to have a simplistic notion of God that you can easily reject since it doesn’t correspond to your view of reality. Others will say, why bother. I can be a good person and a good Jew without believing in God. I think that is true just as a person can be happy being single. But you might consider how further developing a relationship with God may enrich your life and help you show up differently in the world.
Let me close with something to think about the next time you daven the Amidah. Most of us pray to Elohai Avotanu, the God of our ancestors. The God of tradition that inspired or gave all our laws. The one we learned about growing up. We can all relate to tradition. But the Amidah opens Baruch Ata Hashem, Elohanu, V’elohai Avotainu, blessed are you Adonai, our God and God of our Fathers. Elohanu, each of us developing a personal individual relationship with God; that’s the goal. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be God.