Thoughts about God, me, and us

Here’s an article I’ve written to coincide with the Jewish New Year, which begins Sunday evening. Though it is primarily about Jewish issues, I think there are some universal elements, and please feel free to comment on it.

The article has appeared here in the Algemeiner and here in the Canadian CIJA exchange.

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Let’s get some things straight about God and me as they relate to the tension and hatred among Jews in Israel and abroad.

  1. I do not believe that I have a personal relationship with God.
  2. I do not believe that God answers my prayers.
  3. I do not believe that the words and stories of the Torah are to be taken literally.
  4. I do believe that God is a complex concept that no human—not a rabbi, and certainly not a journalist like me—can fully understand.

One of the main problems is that many of us form our concept of God when we are children, and we don’t revise it as we grow up.

We picture a kind, elderly (white) man with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there. He is all-powerful, and that means He can do whatever He wants whenever He wants.

That image is more like Santa Claus than God, but then, Santa Claus is also a childhood image.

An article in a Jewish publication ridiculing Rosh Hashana services and concepts and urging Jews not to observe them is what drove me to put these thoughts down. The author wrote that it’s absurd to think that there’s a Supreme Being with a book open to our page, and He will decide whether we get to live or not, depending on our behavior and whether we atone for our sins.

That’s as childish as believing that there’s a red-suited figure that decides who’ll get Christmas presents, depending on whether they’ve been naughty or nice. For a few years, it works.

Then people outgrow Santa Claus, but most retain the “Christmas spirit,” giving gifts to each other and celebrating the holiday with family gatherings and church services.

Similarly, the “Supreme Being with book open to our page” image should become symbolic in a mature mind, reminding us of our moral obligations and warning us of consequences if we ignore them. Taking it literally is like believing in Santa Claus.

An atheist relative asserted years ago, “If God is good, there is no God. If God is bad, he isn’t God.” That would work if the childish, two-dimensional image of God were correct.

But the Bible itself doesn’t draw that image. In the Bible, God puts before us the ability and responsibility to choose between good and evil. Several times God promises wondrous blessings for choosing good and blood-curdling curses if we choose evil.

Have these blessings ever come to pass? Or the curses? No, not literally.

Time and again, the Torah tells us not to take its words literally. God begins by creating light on the first day and the sun on the fourth. He has created light and has “counted” three “days” before He has a sun.

That’s just the first of many examples. Did God really part the Red Sea? Did He cause manna to fall from the heavens six days a week for 40 years as the Israelites crossed the desert?

The answer is—it doesn’t matter. As adults, most of us file those stories away without comment and go about our lives. If we are religious (not necessarily Orthodox), we follow the precepts and lessons derived from the stories and the rest of the Torah as our life style. Or we don’t.

There’s that ability to choose again. It’s the key to understanding the concept of God as much as we mortals can hope to understand it.

We live in an age where it’s us against them. It’s Israel against the world, it’s the world against Israel, it’s Israel against the Diaspora, it’s Orthodox Jews against all other Jews. Some of these conflicts are imposed on us. We choose to fight others. Choose.

Many Orthodox Jews are so sure of themselves that they reject any other form of Judaism as invalid, improper, even sinful. They try to impose their brand of Judaism on everyone else, with no small measure of success—the Orthodox (now ultra-Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate controls all aspects of officially sanctioned Jewish religious life in Israel.

In turn, this attitude provokes hatred—not just of Orthodox Jews, but of Judaism itself. It accomplishes the opposite of what Judaism is supposed to accomplish.

Anyone, any Jew, who believes that he and he alone has the only correct answer flies in the face of the Talmud, where rabbis argue about every issue imaginable (and some that exceed imagination) but strive to come to agreement, not to perpetuate the rifts. The Torah places unity on a high moral plane and warns against infighting. Who are we to behave in contradiction to the Talmud and the Torah in the name of God?

Do just some of us have the only open channel to God? Just the opposite. I don’t believe that I have a personal relationship with God at all. I don’t believe that He needs my prayers. I don’t believe He watches over me. When I pray every day, it’s for me, not for Him. It’s to put a frame around my day, to keep me aware that there is something bigger, purer and better that I must strive for. That’s my only reward.

In my prayers, I have never asked God to get me a new car, or win the lottery, or favor my basketball team. My prayers are to strengthen me in my commitment to do good in the world. I don’t expect an answer.

I’m amused when a football player points skyward after he crosses the goal line. If he believes that God was watching over him when he scored the touchdown, then if he got tackled on the one-yard line, God was watching over him then, too—and as a God-fearing person, the player must leap up from the pile (if he can) and point skyward in praise of God! I’m still waiting to see that.

I don’t believe God cares whether Maccabi Tel Aviv wins a game or whether Mark Lavie remains healthy. I hope people will say a prayer for me if I’m ill, just as I do when people I know are ill—but not because I believe that there’s some critical mass of prayer that will impel God to fix a broken body. No, because praying for someone connects you to the person, reminds you of their needs, and impels you to do good.

So what does God care about? I have no idea. It’s none of my business, and even if it were my business, I would not be able to understand. Look, I can’t even understand the concept of infinity. I mean, there must be an end to the universe somewhere, but if there is, then there’s something beyond that, and how is that possible? God made it, so pretty clearly He understands it, but I don’t. I can’t. All I can do is what I can do.

God has already done so much. He created the world, took care of little details like making solid water lighter than liquid water, without which there could be no life here, gave us a Torah, gave us rabbis to try to explain its teachings, gave us a moral choice of how we want to live our lives, and left the rest up to us.

The fact that some people choose the wrong path, up to and including Hitler, does not negate the power of God. Instead, it shows His faith in us, His creations, and His belief that one day we will get it right.

So don’t blame God if we don’t. It’s up to us to focus, or refocus, on what is right and what is wrong, how we relate to ourselves, our fellow Jews, and the world—and fix what’s wrong.

And that, my friend who wrote the article dissing Rosh Hashana, is what the holiday is all about: Taking responsibility for our actions and striving to do better next year. Though I don’t pretend to understand the mechanism, I do believe that when millions of Jews turn to God on the same day and approach Him, perhaps we can say that He hears our prayers as a people.

How we do that, and if we do that, is up to us.

—    —    —

Mark Lavie, a journalist, has lived in Israel since 1972. He was brought up Reform in the United States and became Orthodox after moving to Israel.

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