Tag Archives: God

An Agnostic Rabbi?

agnosticismThis post will focus on the difference between what we mean when we say “God” and what we mean when we say “Hashem”. I will explain why when it comes to ‘God’, as refereed to in popular culture, literature and conversation – I am an agnostic, which is less a dramatic statement than it may seem. In the middle, I will touch upon Passover’s evil son as well as ‘the most important idea in the Torah’.

‘What we mean when we say God’
If you were to ask most people, including most Jews what they mean when they say “God”, they would most probably answer – “a higher power”, “the creator”, “supreme being” or even “original cause”. It is this God that most proofs for God’s existence discuss and it is this God that I am, personally, unsure about. Over the years I’ve read hundreds, possibly thousands, of pages on proofs and counter proofs for the existence of God and can summarize them by saying this – it was a very interesting read. An enjoyable intellectual endeavour. No less but also no more. A day I was intellectually stimulated by a strong “pro God” argument was no different than the day I understood how Imanuel Kant pulled the rug from beneath all metaphysics, including the possibility of proofs for God’s existence. With regard to this God, I could quite possibly define myself as an agnostic (“a person who does not have a definite belief about whether God exists or not”). This is because there really do seem to be excellent arguments to both sides. Besides, even if I were to say that I do believe in this “prime changer/designer/causer/intelligence/ truth/concept of perfection/omnipotent being, I’m really not sure what it would mean, other than an intellectual leaning towards the arguments supporting that phrasing. This is a God whom people have to search for, speculate and make deductions about and will therefore be no more than an accidental possibility. It is not what Jews (should) mean when they say ‘God’.

What we mean when we say ‘Hashem’
Consider this: Never does Hashem introduce himself as The Creator, rather, as the God of our fathers or the one who took us out of Egypt. This is true when he introduces himself to Yitzchak (Bereshit 26:24), to Yakov (Bereshit 28:13) to Moshe (Shmot 3:6), to Am Yisrael in Har Sinai (Shmot 20:2), to the generation entering Israel (Shoftim 2:1) and to Gideon (Shoftim 6:13). Similarly, that is how he is described to others: by Moshe to Pharaoh (Shmot 5:3), by Shmuel to Am Yisrael (Shmuel 1, 12:6), Natan the prophet to David (Shmuel 2, 7:6), David to Hashem (Shmuel 2, 7:23) and Shlomo Hamelech (Melachim 1, 8:16 and 8:53).
Yehudah HaleviBased on this and more in depth analysis, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, in his famous book The Kuzari, makes a distinction between “The God of Abraham” and what he calls “The God of Aristotle”. The God of Aristotle is the Creator, the God of nature, the ’cause of causes’. A.K.A – Elohim/אלוהים – plural, the master of all forces. It is more a concept than anything else. And a philosophical concept – as interesting as it may be to those who can grasp it – holds minimal real meaning and cannot truly motivate, inspire or transform. As put so well by Albert Camus: “‘I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument.Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life”. The God of Abraham’ – Hashem – on the other hand, is described by the rabbi of the Kuzari in the following way: “I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, etc…”. ‘Hashem’ is not a concept, rather, that which we identify as the foundational element of our national (and therefore also individual) existence. That which we recognize from our historical experiences; from The Exodus and the events of Tanach all the way through the monumental events of the past century. This is not a God to speculate about, rather always present as part of our self awareness and conversation about ourselves, our destiny, our communal and private lives.

The most important idea in the Torah
Another way to present this is as follows: The most central idea in the Torah is not that God exists, that he created the world or that he controls nature. These ideas appear on almost an occasional basis, if at all. The most central concept in Tanach is the most common verse in Tanach – “Hashem spoke to… saying”. The fact that Hashem communicates directly with us, the Jewish People, that he has a unique relationship with us as revealed through his communication with us through prophecy and our historical happenings. These are not proofs of His existence, rather, this is what we mean when we say Hashem; “He who has been at the center of our historical existence and events since our national inception”. “The ‘object’ around which Jewish Existence defines itself”. “The identity in relation to which The Jewish People define their collective existence and occurrences”.

This also explains the strange attitude towards the evil son in the Passover Hagaddah: “because he removed himself from the collective – he denied the fundamental truth (of God)”. Why is the disassociation from the Jewish Collective mean he is a heretic? This is because, as Rambam states in one of his central chapters in The Guide to The Perplexed: “Emunah is not that which is uttered by the lips, rather that which is pictured in the Nefesh”. Meaning, forget about what people say they do and don’t believe. People have all kinds of silly notions of what they think they understand and believe. Don’t look at what his mouth is saying, look at what his life is saying; what kind of life is he leading? one which is consistent with the ideals, truths and behaviours of the divine, or not? and being part of the Jewish collective is just that – a life centered around the eternal relationship between Hashem and Am Yisrael.

To summarize: “Does God exist?”, is not a Jewish questions and is asking a question which, even if answered, has very little real significance. “What do we mean when we say the word Hashem”, on the other hand, is a very Jewish question and its answer makes all the difference in the world as it changes how you understand who you are – as an individual and as a member of a larger entity called The Jewish People.
And what of my agnosticism and doubt regarding The Creator? well, turns out Hashem has solved this issue for me; after presenting himself to us at Har Sinai, identifying himself as the one took us out of Egypt, etc… he mentions, almost incidentally (in the context of Shabbat) that he created the Heavens and the Earth. Nu, good to know.

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Simon & Garfunkel, Jesus and Sex – a surprising conversation with my 8 year old son

On a drive back from Buffalo to Toronto last week, with only myself and my 8 year old in the car, I put on a “Simon and Garfunkel” disc as part of his ‘music appreciation education’. (He can already identify Blues as a genre, Beetles, Queen, some U2 and ‘Stairway to Heaven’. I thought it was time he become familiar with the great music of two nice Jewish boys, named Simon and Art).  
The first song on this timeless collection was “Mrs, Robinson”.

For those not familiar with this rock classic (shame on you!) the opening lyrics are:
“And here’s to you Mrs. Robinson;Jesus loves you more than you will know (wo wo wo)”.
Upon hearing this line, the following quite long and extremely important conversation ensued between my son and me:
Matanel: “Abba, who’s Jesus?”
Me: “He was a Jewish guy who lived a very long time ago. Do you remember that we learnt about Avaraham Avinu and how when he was a kid everyone believed that statues had powers and that they were gods? well Christians think that Jesus, who was a man, had powers and was a God. What do you think, does that make sense?”
Matanel: “No, not really”
Me: “Remember the story of how Avraham smashed all the statues and put the stick in the hands of the big statue and told his father that the big statue did it and that his father got angry because the statue is just a statue? what did Avraham answer him?”
Matanel: “That if the statue can’t smash the other statues how can you believe he is God”.
Me: “That’s right. So it’s the same thing with Jesus. Just like the statue was made by someone else and is just a statue so he can’t be God, also man was made from something and came from his parents and can’t be God”
Matanel (laughing): “That makes sense”.
Me: “Think about it. If he’s a ‘man’ then he’s a ‘man’ and if he’s ‘God’ – then he’s ‘God’. Saying ‘man’ is ‘God’ would be like saying a dog is a fish (Matanel laughing hysterically). If I tell you that this dog is a fish, that means that either it’s not a fish or it’s not a dog. It can’t be both, can it?”
Matanel: “Well, it can be both if you’re speaking in both languages…” (the Hebrew word דג, which means fish sounds exactly like the English word dog)
Me (laughing): “Well, I guess, but you know what I mean. Let’s say I say a dog is a cat – it’s either a cat that I’m calling a dog, or a dog that I’m calling a cat. IT can’t be both, right?”
Matanel: “Well, what if a dog and cat get married, wouldn’t their baby be both?”
Me: “Wow, good question. From what I know, when 2 animals from different species have babies, the babies can’t survive and they die”.
Matanel: “Ah. Abba – do animals get married?”
Me: “Not really”.
Matanel: “So how do they have kids?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Matanel: “I have a different question. When people tell me I got my green eyes from you and Savta, or that I ‘got my height from my uncles’, how did I ‘get them’ from you?”
Me: “Do you know how you can save letters and pictures on the computer at home?” 
Matanel: “You mean it’s saved in the memory?”
Me: “Yes, exactly. So there’s something in our bodies called ‘cells’…”
Matanel: “Abba, I know what cells are!”
Me: “Oh, OK. Sorry. Well, cells have in them something called DNA that remembers all the things about our bodies – our height, the color of our eyes and hair and a lot, a lot of other things…
Matanel: “So I have your DNA and that’s why I’m like you?”
Me: “Yes but you also have Ema’s DNA”
Matanel: “Because I was in her Tummy?”
Me: “Ya, kind of”
Matanel: “But how did I get your DNA?”
Me: “Well, just like you can send someone an e-mail with letters and pictures that are kept in the memory of your computer, I sent my DNA, that has all the information about my body, into Ema’s tummy”
Matanel: “How did you send it to her? I mean, how did she get it from you? is it because you got married?”
Me: “Ah, I understand your question now. So no, not exactly because we got married. Think about it – you weren’t born right after Ema and I got married, right? only seven years later”
Matanel: “Ya. So how did you send your DNA to Ema?” 
Me: “You know how when you see a man and a women kissing and you don’t like looking because it’s very private?
Matanel (laughing) :”Ya”
Me: “So, there is something else that Abbas and Emas do and that’s how I send my DNA to Ema. It’s not from kissing – if someone ever tells you it’s from kissing, they don’t know what they’re talking about – but it’s from something like kissing that Emas and Abbas do but it’s more than kissing. It’s more special and more private than kissing. It’s like kissing, but more.”
Matanel: (says nothing. Seems to be thinking about this)
Me: “Do you want to hear more about this now or continue talking about it at a different time when you feel ready?”
Matanel: “Let’s continue a different time”
Me: “OK. I really like talking to you about these things. Let me know whenever you want to continue talking about it”. 
Matanel: “OK. Me too. Can I play on your phone now?”
Me: “Sure”. 
This Shabbat afternoong, Matanel asked me “if we could continue the DNA conversation”. I said I’d love to but we should wait until we can speak about it in quiet, without his younger brothers around to bother us.
Pointers to self for the continued conversation:
1. My kid is awesome. Thank you Hahsem for granting me such a special boy!
2. Make sure to continue letting him lead the conversation. Make sure I’m giving him the information he’s asking about and not giving him information he’s not actually asking about or ready for. There’s plenty of time. 
3. Don’t make a big deal out of either topic (God or Sex). He should continue to feel it is just like any other area in life, not something to get super excited, anxious or embarrassed about. 
4. What Simon and Garfunkel song should I have him listen to next…?

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How institutionalized prayer can rob you of your connection to God

Synagogues, as an institution of prayer, aren’t an authentic part of Judaism. Before the Temple was destroyed, there was no institutionalized prayer; no set language, no time constraints, no need for a quorum. A person got up in the morning, saw the rising sun, felt the falling rain and burst into a spontaneous prayer of thanks, praise or request. Prayer was the most direct and personal way for a Jew to express his relationship with God. 
So how did we get to what someone defined for me as: “Why do I pray to a God I can’t see in a language I don’t understand for things I don’t need?”
When the 2nd temple was destroyed that included the cancellation of the “Tamid” (“always”) sacrifices; the twice brought daily sacrifice was an expression of devotion by the entire nation which, naturally, was performed by their representatives- the priests- in the communal place of devotion- the temple.
When it was destroyed, so was the peoples’ ability – as a community – to express and manifest their relationship with God.
This is when prayer- as we know it today- was instituted. That is why we do it as a community. That is why the heart of prayer – Amida, the silent prayer – is worded in the plural and the requests are for communal needs.
So, there are 2 distinct concepts of prayer in Judaism:
1. Personal expression of one’s relationship with Hashem 
2. Representing the communal needs of the Jewish people
Over time, people have completely substituted the first with the second and have lost the ability, and possibly the inclination, of having a relationship with God as individuals and not exclusively through their association with the congregation.
Of course institutionalized prayer is still very important, just don’t let it rob you of of speaking to God whenever, wherever and however you want. Think of it this way – instead of using “thank God” in conversation with other people – try it in a conversation with Him. You may be surprised with the results. (250+)

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People don’t follow Halacha because of God

Ask any 3 observant people what they mean when they say “God” and you’ll get 3 different answers. Even so, they’re all leading observant lives. This leads me to understand that it is not theology that causes people to follow Halacha. All theology – Jewish, non Jewish, different streams within Judaism – can be understood and logically defended. Meaning, it is something else that causes people to follow Halacha and that is that they choose to take upon themselves a certain way of life for all kinds of reasons: they want to be part of a generational continuum, it fills their lives with direction, it’s what they’re familiar with, they don’t want to get smote by lightning, they want to be told what to do, they want to be part of a community, or whatever. The important thing in this idea is that it is all a choice. That becomes even truer in today’s day and age when people have the ability to choose what they want, when they want, how they want with little consequence other than the choice itself. And all these myriad of choices make up the phenomena which is The Jewish People which seems to be the point of it all. The only question is – to what degree do I choose to participate and take part. (218)

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