Sunday, September 19, 2010

God Talk

From Rabbi Perlman's Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon on God.......

".....Throughout all of last year, as you know, our congregation engaged in a wonderful process of formulating a new Temple Beth Shalom vision statement. Many members of our community set about the important task of reflection, consideration, and crafting a statement that accurately articulated who we are as a congregation and what we strive to make real. The document, as it developed - along with the evolving mission statement - spoke of learning, prayer, sacred community, and tikkun olam - healing our broken world. In the spring, a draft of the proposed vision statement was introduced to our Board of temple leadership for feedback and comments. Both in substance and poetry, the leaders gathered that night affirmed the hard work that had already been done. And then, part of the way through the meeting, someone raised a hand and asked the question: "Where is the word 'God' in all of this?" Immediately people started scanning the statement. The questioner was correct. Indeed, while the text for the proposed vision had used such words as "holy," "sacred," and "covenant," the word "God" was no where to be seen."

"For some, this was not problematic at all. Those other words alluded to God, even if the statement did not mention God specifically. And this, they felt was enough. Furthermore, some commented that there are many people in our community who do not believe in God and that using such specific language might distance them from what the vision was trying to express. Others, however, respectfully disagreed - commenting that, as a temple - a House of God - we should not be apologetic and speak around the word "God" but include it."

"Sitting next to Beth, our temple President, I recall thinking that this was one of the best Board meetings in which I had ever participated. The "God Talk" was thoughtful, impassioned, personal, and respectful......And, all the while, I couldn't help but wonder at how it was that God had somehow become a kind of "third rail" topic - one that needed to be avoided - at temple."

"This morning, I would like for us to begin a conversation about God. I would like for us to thoughtfully consider what we believe - what we don't believe - why - and, perhaps most importantly, what difference it makes.......The goal, of course is not to force faith - for as we know, to be Jewish, one need not specifically believe in G-d - but rather to grow through our engaging our tradition and one another."

......."By the conclusion of the Board meeting during which the 'Great TBS God Debate' took place, it was decided that our congregation's new Vision Statement should, in fact, specifically include God.....and should do so in such a way that both honors the members of our community - and, at the same time, states that an important part of who we are is that we take our evolving understanding of God seriously."

"The specific God statement in our vision reads as follows:
'We seek a relationship with God that is personal. Living in the tradition of being Yisrael - one who wrestles with God - we cherish our diversity of belief and Jewish expression. Each of us thoughtfully searches for understanding, guidance, and inspiration from the teachings and many voices of our tradition."

Some Questions to Consider for Your Post:

  • If you had been at the Board Meeting, what would your opinion have been?
  • What are your thoughts about God? What do you believe? What don't you believe? Why?
  • What are your thoughts about the TBS Vision Statement regarding God and our community?

We look forward to seeing this community conversation develop!!

Chag Sameach!! Happy Sukkot!!


  1. As the guy who raised the hand and asked where is the word God in all of this, thought I would tank you for doing this. I haven't read any of the suggested books or articles, and am not sure how to blog either. Anyway, I did find R' Sonsino's post on his blog regarding Stephen Hawking's new book worth considering as a starting point:

    "Recently, the famous British mathematician and physicist, Steven Hawking announced in his new book, The Great Design, that the world’s appearance can be explained by the laws of physics and without any reference to a “benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit.” Some people are very upset by it, because, they believe, it contradicts the teachings of the Hebrew Bible on this subject. In reality, when Genesis speaks of “God created,” it really means “God brought some shape to it,” and it was only in the medieval period that the question of “creation out of nothing” became popular- but I digress.
    I am not at all upset by Hawking’s assertions, and my God concept is not affected by it. As a religious naturalist, who assumes that the universe is energized and sustained by a divine power, I pay little attention to the question of how the universe came into being. I leave this discussion to the scientists. I do not believe in a personal God who cares for individuals, who is involved in history and who seems to operate as a capricious deity, responding to the whims of humanity. For me, the laws of nature reflect the workings of God, and I simply try to adjust my life to these laws.
    Hawking is not alone in his position. There are many people in this world who are searching for a meaningful religious experience that is reasonable and rational, one that gives equal weight to the emotions and to the mind. I attempted to expound this way of thinking in my book, Six Jewish Spiritual Paths (Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2000) where prayer is viewed primarily as an introspective activity whose only role is to change the individual and not the world around him/her, where religious ritual is viewed as the primary means to establish personal discipline and to connect one to his/her community and tradition, unencumbered by the specific will of God as reflected in biblical or rabbinic laws (God , I am sure, has other tasks than worry about what I eat, drink or wear!), where religion ultimately means a search for meaning and purpose in life, leading to a high moral life in society.
    A couple of weeks ago, Glenn Beck, in his “Restoring Honor Rally” in Washington, DC, asked people to return to God. By that he meant, the traditional theistic view of God. Well, he does not have the exclusive rights to the divinity. As a religious person, I too, invite people to return to God, but to a God concept which is in consonance with science and to a God who, as Einstein allegedly said, does not play dice with the universe. If you are such a person, especially now that we are about to embark on the Jewish High Holidays when religious feelings are at their highest, please join me in my religious quest, with a rational approach. And if you have an interest, please check out my detailed discussion in my book on Spirituality. You may like it.
    Rifat Sonsino"

  2. After Rabbi Jay's sermon, I was speaking with my son about how I felt about God when I was his age, in confirmation class. My view of God then was that it was my conscience. I explained that as I got older and experienced more things in life, I felt the need for a God that was more than a rational and intellectual mind. I sought and am still seeking a God that helps guide me through life, helps me refocus my energies on what is truly important. I am now comfortable with the concept of God that is something I cannot totally understand or explain.

  3. Life, as it has impacted on me, and the history of times present and past, inform and alter my beliefs about God. Yes, there have been times when faced with issues of health and death that I have called out to an interceding God, and situations of awe where I have felt a spiritual presence. But in more reflective, more rational moments, I do not believe in the existence of such a being. I believe more strongly that man in his basic need for a force greater than himself to intercede on his behalf when faced with circumstance and nature, created God; than I do that God created man. How could a merciful, Godly God allow the expulsions, the tortures that have plagued the Jewish people! How could there have been the Holocaust! Or the crippled or the infirm who are denied much of life's sweetness? Or Darfur? Or a too large recounting of horrors. Perhaps it is the limitation of my mind and imagination that keep me from believing in a God figure.
    What I do strongly believe in is the knowledge delivered through Torah and the history of the Jewish people. Whether by inspiration or collective wisdom, Torah carves the path through the wilderness for humanity. It shines the light by which we can evolve from the beast to the human.
    And yet,I respect my limitations enough that I do keep seeking.

  4. This festival of Sukkot is a wonderful physical reminder of the potential of G-d's presence in our lives. As I've spent time in my own sukkah, sometimes alone and at others with friends and family, I have had the wonderful opportunity of considering and reflecting upon G-d's presence in my own life and how truly grateful I am. I must say that I love my sukkah. It is colorful and bright. It is an oasis on my own property.
    And yet, it is impermanent. Each year it goes up and comes back down a week or so later. G-d on the other hand need not come down or go up, but simply is. G-d is here. G-d is here to turn towards at good times and bad. G-d is my sounding board. I very much want G-d to be my partner in all that I do. We don't always get along, and that's ok too. I may shake my lulav and etrog in all directions, but truly for me to find the Holy One, I look within...

  5. R'Lenke, Just wondered what you would say to Stephen Hawking, maybe that "the laws of physics don't work when looking within"? John

  6. John, I think if we only look within, we are in trouble. It is like what Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot: If I am not for myself, who will be for me. If I am only for myself what am I? ... We need to achieve a sense of balance.
    I actually think that my understanding would be understood by physicists as it very much mirrors Newton's law of motion. If for every action there is an equal and "opposite" reaction, then for everything we do in the world, outside of our bodies, there is in fact a response within our bodies or at least in our souls. What we do, should affect us.

    I also happen to agree with much of Rabbi Sonsino's blog and I can appreciate other's understandings, definitions, interpretations etc of G-d. I've said it many times that I see G-d like a diamond. It is as if there are countless facets and depending on the light, how you hold it, and who is looking, different aspects/names/images of G-d are possible to grasp.

  7. I very much appreciate your thoughts ... but R'Lenke, I am asking, are you and R'Sonsino saying to Stephen Hawking, that he is using the wrong definition of God? John

  8. Rabbi Michele LenkeOctober 3, 2010 at 6:14 PM

    Wrong definition? No.
    We just have different interpretations and experiences.
    Let's keep the conversation going everyone.

  9. I coincidentally received this from a Christian friend in Florida:
    It was written by an 8-year-old named Danny Dutton, who lives in Chula Vista , CA . He wrote it for his third grade homework assignment, to 'explain God.' I wonder if any of us could have done as well?
    [ .... and he had such an assignment, in California , and someone published it, I guess miracles do happen ! ... ]
    'One of God's main jobs is making people. He makes them to replace the ones that die, so there will be enough people to take care of things on earth. He doesn't make grownups, just babies. I think because they are smaller and easier to make. That way he doesn't have to take up his valuable time teaching them to talk and walk. He can just leave that tomothers and fathers.'
    'God's second most important job is listening to prayers. An awful lot of this goes on, since some people, like preachers and things, pray at times beside bedtime. God doesn't have time to listen to the radio or TV because of this. Because he hears everything, there must be a terrible lot of noise in his ears, unless he has thought of a way to turn it off.'
    'God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere which keeps Him pretty busy. So you shouldn't go wasting his time by going over your mom and dad's head asking for something they said you couldn't have.'

    'Atheists are people who don't believe in God. I don't think there are any in Chula Vista ... At least there aren't any who come to our church.'

    These are Dan's thoughts. On watching the news this evening, two very good friends, killed recently in Afghanistan in different areas were given permission to be buried together so they would be together in heaven. One was a Marine and the other was a Navy seal. Now if God is omnipresent, these two heroes would be together no matter where they are buried. A mother, upon her death, wanted to be buried next to her son at Arlington National Cemetery. She was given permission. Wouldn't she automatically be with her son because of God's good will to keep the family together. If one believes strongly in afterlife then the above spent energies are worthwhile. As far as I am concerned, God or Temple teaches us at a young age how to live and behave with good morals here on Earth.

  10. Rabbi Michele LenkeOctober 6, 2010 at 11:02 PM

    For a modern even "pop" perspective on this topic I commend to everyone this week's episode of GLEE! It was very well done!

  11. R' Lenke, I did see Glee and thought it well done! Here's what I found on this subject this week that got my attention:

    "C.S. Lewis was not content to define God simply as a First Cause, a tradition that goes back at least as far as Aristotle and which apparently continues in the background thinking of Hawking and Mlodinow. Lewis noted that you can read all the plays of Shakespeare and never meet a character named Shakespeare who compels the others to act as they do. As Lewis concludes, “If God exists, he is related to the universe more as an author to his play than as one object in the universe is related to another. If God created the universe, he created space-time, which is to the universe as the metre to the poem or the key to the music.” In this way of thinking, it is pointless “to look for Him as one item within the framework which He himself invented”

    Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: C.S. Lewis vs. Stephen Hawking From a recent post, "How C. S. Lewis 'Prefutes' Stephen Hawking", by Dr. David Downing.

  12. Please check out my new article,
    "Implications of Theological Diversity in Reform Judaism, "Torah at the Center, URJ, Vol 14/1, Fall 2010.
    Under the category of "God."
    Rabbi Rifat Sonsino

  13. R' Sonsino, Read your article, a thoughtful piece. So I would ask, given the diversity of views, what does the new loyalty oath to become an Israeli citizen mean?

  14. The new loyalty oath is bad politics. We don't need it. It will only cause troubles.

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  18. Rabbi Michele Lenke's 4th grade classOctober 18, 2010 at 12:26 PM

    As this blog is a vehicle for the entire Beth Shalom community, let me share with you some highlights from a discussion with my fourth grade class this past Sunday. I should add that they were very excited that their words would be included here. I will divide their comments into two categories: 1) What we "know" and 2) What are our questions?
    Let's start with what we know:
    G-d is everywhere and everything.
    G-d is special.
    G-d has power like kings- that's why we call G-d "king" (referring to Melech HaOlam)
    G-d decides our fate.
    G-d is a thing (not a He)
    G-d hopes that we will make good decisions.
    We pray to G-d for good luck.
    G-d is the one who made everything
    G-d is in Torah.
    We don't know exactly what G-d is.
    We can't see G-d, but can see G-d in things.
    We might not know what G-d is, but we know what G-d did.
    We can't see G-d the same way we can't see ideas or feelings, but you know you have them.
    Here are some of our questions:
    How do we know if G-d is a guy?
    How did G-d come to be?
    How do we know that there is a G-d?
    How do we know that Adam didn't make G-d up?
    Are we characters in this book that G-d is writing?
    Does the Garden of Eden still exist? Or did it get wiped out in Noah's flood?
    How does G-d not get burned by the sun?
    Does G-d help you in sports?
    Can we see G-d in people?
    Does G-d sometimes appear in disguise?
    Did someone make up the Torah so that we would have hope or faith?

    These comments are all from the mouths of our children. They are so open to exploring these difficult questions. Let's open this dialogue/multilogue to the comments and questions that we each have about this very important subject. As I mentioned to my class, Judaism values the questions we ask perhaps even more than the answers we give.

  19. Loved comment, "Can we see G-d in people?" Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but the yes times are amazing.

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  21. Okay, got it right - here is the comment i wanted to share: "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience" Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Why does this comment feel like it makes so much sense?

  22. Ah another comment I wanted to share: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."
    -- Thomas Jefferson

  23. From a cursory glance, it appears that the Orthodox accept G-d without question. The Conservative accept G-d, but with qualifications. The Reform are embarassed to concede the possibility that G-d exists, and so the mention of G-d comes with an apology, lest anyone in the Synagogue be offended!

    S'iz shver tzu zein a Yid!

  24. So where does the idea that idol worship is anathema come in? Is worship a given in our lives, true or false?

  25. God is a verb, not a noun proper or improper. ~R. Buckminster Fuller, No More Secondhand God, 1963

  26. I found worth noting Stephen Hawking in Time Magazine's 10 Questions feature last week. Question: "If God doesn't exist, why did the concept of his existence become almost universal?" Hawking's Answer: "I don't claim that God doesn't exist. God is the name people give to the reason we are here. But I think that reason is the laws of physics rather than someone with whom one can have a personal relationship. An impersonal God."