“If somehow you knew, for a fact, that G-d does not exist, would you still be an observant Jew?”
This was a question posed to me by one of my students last week. And without any hesitation I answered that if I somehow knew for a fact that G-d does not exist, I would drop everything: Shabbos, Kosher, even chulent! And yes, I know that means I would have to get a new job.
The interesting thing was that my students were kind of puzzled by my response. They didn’t expect me to say that and it got me thinking – is there really any reason in the world that anyone would practice Judaism if they did not believe in its underlying and most fundamental principle, the existence of G-d?!
And the more I thought about it the more I realized that actually, yes, there is no shortage of reasons to be part of the tribe even without believing in anything. Here are just a few reasons that came to mind, and I’m sure there are more:
Let’s start with hospitality: Think about it, you decide to visit a city for a weekend, let’s say New York. You have two choices, go through AirBNB and find yourself a nice bed in some guy’s house for a few hundred dollars. Or, you go to Shabbat.com and you get stay at someone’s home for free with two five course meals. You choose!
And this is not a new thing. This is what we have always done. Throughout the past two thousand years, you could show up in a new city with no place to go, attend Friday night services at the local shul and voila, you are set for the weekend.
And it’s not just meals. I have been locked out of my house numerous times – it’s called having four children. Now when that happens on a weekend or after business hours, which it always does, there are no locksmiths who will come out to your home. But in major Jewish cities like this one, you pick up the phone, assuming your baby hasn’t dropped it in the toilet, and call this wonderful volunteer group called Chaveirim, and within five minutes there is someone there who can pick your lock before you can say, “wow, that’s really scary that people are picking my lock that easily.”
Oh, and did I mention the Free Loan Society? Ahavas Yisrael? Hatzalah?!
It’s not just hospitality, there is this tremendous social network that you can tap into just because you’re last name ends in -stein! Just because you’re Jewish!
And then there’s Jewish humor. We Jews have all these great inside jokes. Well, the truth is, they’re basically anti-Semitic jokes said by Jews, so that makes them kind of funny.
This past summer, Jerry Seinfeld was a guest on Norm McDonald Live, and he shared what he called ‘a joke that only Jews would understand.’ It goes like this: Two gentile businessmen meet on the street. One of them says, “How’s business?” The other one says, “Great!”
That’s it. That was the joke. And I’m going to be honest, I don’t get it. But didn’t it feel really cool to know that there’s this inside joke that only Jews are supposed to understand?!
Which brings me to the next feature of being part of the Jew-tribe – the cool factor. One of the most popular and accomplished rappers today is a man by the name of Aubrey Graham, otherwise known as Drake. He is a fellow Torontonian —– and his mother is Jewish, which makes him 100% Jewish.
Well this past week, in one of the poshest clubs in LA, a place called Poppy, together with Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jamie Foxx, Drake, to celebrate his 31st birthday, threw himself what he called a Re-Bar Mitzvah (get it? 13 – 31).
He went all out with traditional Bar Mitzvah themes and so instead of classy food, they had dippin dots stations, they had a photo booth – a classic feature at every Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and he somehow found his Bar Mitzvah board (you know, where you sign your name?) from 18 years ago.
The most uncool part of Judaism – the ceremony in which a pimply-faced 13 year old dances with his similarly awkward friends just became hip!! (I apologize to all 13 year olds in the crowd)
So yeah, there are a whole bunch of really good reasons to be Jewish which have nothing! I mean nothing to do with G-d!
But as you know that wasn’t always the case. Today we read about the first Jew, or at least the father of Judaism, Abraham. Back then, being a monotheist was sort of cool, after all he was clearly part of the counterculture, but back then, being part of the counterculture meant that you were an outcast at best, and an enemy of the state at worst. According to our tradition, Avraham was forced out of his hometown after they failed at executing him.
Jewish humor obviously did not exist and even the most long-standing and most powerful tradition of Judaism, the most compelling non-religious reason to be part of this tribe, the idea of a caring community, Avraham and his wife Sarah – they did not have that. There was no one else with which to create that sense of togetherness and care that we associate with Judaism. They had no one to turn to for help, they had no one to turn to in times of need; they were all alone – and yet, they practiced some form of Judaism. They were its founders, after all.
Seriously, let’s think about this – There were no mitzvot back then, no traditions had evolved, whatever they practiced looked nothing like what Judaism looks like today, and yet they were Jews. So what did they have? What did they rally around? What was their Jewish experience all about?
You know what they had? They had only one thing; they had G-d. Monotheism to be precise. It was that singular idea that connected them, that inspired them, and that spawned the dawn of three history-altering faiths.
And I want to focus on that; what does it mean to believe in a single G-d? What are the implications of Avraham and Sarah’s Monotheism? How does it differ from polytheism, the belief in many gods, which was the prevalent worldview of their time? How does it differ from the more modern worldview that denies the existence of any G-d?
When you think about it, that single idea, the idea of Monotheism had then and still has to this day some truly radical implications:
In a world of polytheism, different gods created different people. Some gods may be stronger, better or more beautiful, which means that the people they create are similarly distinguished.
Whereas, in a world of one G-d, every person, male or female, regardless of class, color, culture, or creed, is created “in the image of G-d.”
In a world without a god, there is no intrinsic value to world history – certainly not to an individual life. In such a worldview, we are all in essence “accidents.”
Whereas, in a world of one G-d, a G-d who stands outside of history, outside of this universe, and creates it, there is an implication of purpose and therefore intrinsic worth in my life as well as yours.
In a world with competing gods, gods of light and gods of darkness, it is the warring gods who are to blame for the good and evil that is found in this world. And the same is true in the deterministic, purely scientific world we live in today. My decisions are based on my hardwiring, my DNA, and no decision I make is my own.
Whereas, in a world of one G-d, we are taught that just like G-d chooses between good and evil, we too are endowed with these G-d-like features – and human responsibility is born.
And lastly, in a world with one G-d, my existential loneliness is never absolute, knowing that He is out there, watching, listening, and caring.
Those are pretty powerful ideas; equality, intrinsic meaning to life, human responsibility, and a G-d who loves and cares. Wow. You don’t need humor, hipness, or even community to make that compelling.
Which leads me back to my student who asked that great question. Because she asked me a follow up question: “Where do you find this G-d of yours?” In other words, yes, if G-d exists, the ramifications to our lives are immense, but how do you know He’s there?
There are many ways people answer this question. Some people point to Jewish history – the remarkable survival of the Jewish People. Some people point to the complexity and the majesty of the human body or of the Universe. Some point to the many sections in the Torah which seem to predict things that subsequently took place, and some somewhat controversially point to the Bible Codes – a group of remarkable patterns that some mathematicians argue you will not find in any other piece of literature. Some point to the profundity of Torah itself.
But I’m a skeptic like many of you here. And I know and you know that there is no definitive PROOF; there is no argument without a counter-argument.
For me personally, it’s all those things, or at least some of them that together make G-d’s existence compelling enough for me to believe in. Not an empty and shallow blind faith, nor foolproof knowledge, but enough circumstantial evidence, intellectually, experientially, that I’m willing to bet and base my life on it.
But I don’t think that’s the real answer to her question. I believe there’s something much deeper at play. I don’t think it’s about how much evidence there is to yes believe or not believe. To me, the real question is, are you open to believing? Because you see, our brains are pretty clever and they play tricks on us. There is the powerful little tool it has called cognitive dissonance – it causes us to think along the lines of how we act. If an idea – such as the belief of G-d – will cause us to be uncomfortable – as it does, with its demands, with its lifestyle, then our brains have this clever way of choosing to ignore some facts in place of others.
Let me give you an example. Just over a hundred years ago, based on his theory of relativity, Albert Einstein predicted that gravitational waves transport energy as gravitational radiation, a form of radiant energy similar to electromagnetic radiation. I also don’t know what that means, but it’s a very big deal in the world of science. The people who ultimately detected gravitational waves were just awarded the Nobel Prize.
Einstein himself thought it was highly unlikely that we would be able to detect these gravitational waves. However, over the past few decades, a group of scientist called LIGO set up equipment all over the world to see if they could detect these gravitational waves.
After years of looking for it, on September 15, 2015, the first gravitational waves were finally detected. All over the world, the scientists of LIGO celebrated, however it is that scientists celebrate…
However, there was one member of the LIGO team, Dr. Peter Saulson who did something entirely different. He actually did not hear the news right away because the day the waves were detected just happened to be Rosh Hashana and although he is not observant, he does not take his phone to synagogue. When he did get home and learned about the news, you know what he did? I heard this from an acquaintance of his – He bought himself a pair of tefillin and mezuzas for his house. (Rabbi Klatzko, radio interview, Jews You should Know)
Peter Saulson was open to believing.
And I believe this is the deeper message behind the Medrash that speaks of Avraham’s search for G-d, how he looked up and saw the beautiful moon, that was eventually banished by the powerful sun, that was eventually covered by the thick clouds, that was eventually blown away by the wind, and Avraham famously says, there must be a force behind all of this! And he concludes there must be a G-d.
As a youngster hearing this, I thought Avraham was brilliant – you know, that’s solid logic. But the truth is there was nothing profound in Avraham’s thinking. Everyone recognized that the different elements, as powerful as they were, could be negated by one another!
But perhaps the message of the Medrash is that Avraham was open to believing in G-d. Yes, he saw what everyone saw but he was open to its possible implications. The implications which made him do things that were hard, uncomfortable, difficult.
This is our challenge and this is our legacy. Thanks to the trailblazing work of Avraham and Sarah, Judaism is as hip, funny, and rewarding as ever. But if we were to really look back to what they did and what they stood for then G-d must be an integral part of our Jewish identity.
And so, like Avraham and Sarah, let us search for G-d and more importantly, let us be open to our discoveries. In the words of one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, “G-d is not everywhere. G-d is wherever you let Him in.”