I once read a story about the Holocaust, which may or may not be apocryphal. Not that it matters. Nothing—as well as everything—about the Holocaust is impossible to believe. What’s important is that the story’s conclusion tells us a great deal about humanity’s longing for God.
One afternoon, a group of Jewish prisoners engages in a heated discussion. Half deny God’s existence. Who can blame them? Although Elie Wiesel sagely responds to the question, “Where was God?” with “Where was man?” The other half defends God’s existence, even if they cannot understand their plight. Then someone says it’s four o’clock. All go off to pray Mincha, the afternoon service.
The story, with its deep irony, typifies Jewish humor. It also demonstrates a great truth. We all long for something beyond ourselves, something that can guide us in living not just for ourselves but also for each other. Tonight, as always, I’ll attend Shabbat services at Congregation Sherith Israel. And I’ll witness that Holocaust story play itself out yet again.
Reform Jews, notes Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism in the current issue of Reform Judaism magazine, “have trouble talking about God.” True that! But Rabbi Jacobs’ observation isn’t new. Many people with whom I’ve attended services and Saturday morning Torah Study share an agnosticism bordering on atheism. The God of the Torah antagonizes them. At Sinai, God instructs the Israelites never to bow down to sculptured images or other false gods “For I the Lord your God am an impassioned [often translated as jealous] God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me…” (Exodus 20:5). God has a temper, and many thousands of deaths result. Yet still they pray and study.
As for me, I’ve long been attuned to Maimonides’ dictum regarding God—even more so after both my recent visit to Israel and a class on Maimonides taught by Sherith Israel’s senior rabbi, Larry Raphael. We know God by what God is not. God has no body—no head, no hands, no feet. God is not a consumer of food—the ancient sacrifices. God, in spite of the passage from Exodus and others in the Hebrew Bible, has no emotions. The Torah is metaphor written in a language people can understand. Thus God doesn’t even need our prayers. We need them.
The current Reform Judaism offers reflections from members of Sinai Temple in Springfield, Massachusetts regarding feeling close to God: at the birth of a child, on Yom Kippur, in the company of others. These are all valid. But none defines God.
Then again, does God need definition? The very concept of God may elude us, yet we’re drawn us to investigate, discuss and even argue. As for me, I believe in God as that which connects us to our best selves, each other and our world. And I’m quite willing to let it go at that. Which is why the only response I can offer atheists is, “Which God is it that you don’t believe in?”
Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.
Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at email@example.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.