THE BLOG
06/10/2013 04:47 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

The God I Don't Believe In

The search for Ultimate Truth is not an exclusively Jewish quest, but we've been at it longer than any of the world's other existing religions. The Torah credits Abraham with the signal spiritual insight that gave birth to Judaism. Within a few terse verses, the Abraham narrative reveals the Torah's fundamental theology: that God knows, and to some extent can be known by, human beings; that God has consciousness and will, and can, if God chooses, communicate with people; that God commands, blesses, rewards and punishes; that God is aware of and intervenes in human affairs. Perhaps the most profound aspect of the narrative is that God and people, both individuals and nations, can be in relationship. God and Israel, the Jewish People, the Torah teaches, have a unique and eternal relationship called "a covenant," a brit, with binding promises and expectations, a reciprocal relationship with mutual accountability.

Abraham's story is just the beginning of our people's attempts to discern the mystery of the Divine. Jewish tradition has more than 100 names for God, testifying to the many ways God has been experienced, each of them evocative and fragmentary. The impossibility of knowing God fully, and the profoundly personal character of each individual's relationship with God, are illustrated by a rabbinic commentary. Why, it asked, does the Amidah prayer address the "God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob" instead of the "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" Because each had to find God for himself. So must we.

The most refined condensation of Jewish thinking about God is found in our liturgy, whose prayers address a personal God with whom we can communicate, collectively and individually. When all is said and done, there are three Jewish prayer themes: Wow! Help! and Thanks! "Wow" prayers express awe and wonder -- radical amazement at the universe and its order and majesty, nature and its beauty, the marvelous complexity of the human body, the miracle of life itself. "Help" prayers articulate our deepest needs, hopes and fears, aspirations and longings. "Thanks" prayers give voice to gratitude for our blessings -- for our lives and souls, the miracles and wonders and goodness that surround us every day, the privilege of being Jews, the opportunity to be God's partners in the ongoing work of creation, for God's love and care.

Throughout the ages, especially in the most difficult times and circumstances, Jews have derived comfort from the belief that God knows and cares for us. Many still do. But prayers that invoke a personal God do not speak to everyone. For some, such a God concept is not credible, persuasive or appealing. It may even be off-putting. In my three decades as a rabbi, any number of people have told me they don't believe in God, but more often than not, the God they don't believe in is an a old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne high in the heavens. I don't believe in that God either. The only depiction of God I've seen resembling that is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, an image Michelangelo surely did not intend anyone to take literally. While some insist they learned that concept in Sunday school, I can't believe any Jewish teacher ever described God that way. I think it far likelier that we form a primitive visual image of God in childhood, but even as we mature, our concept of God may not. There are ample reasons to believe in God, to be uncertain or doubtful or even to disbelieve, but none of them involve a man with a white beard on a throne in the high heavens.

Can we say anything meaningful about prayer to those of us, dear friends, family members or we, ourselves, who struggle with or cannot accept the idea of a personal God? We can. Jewish thought about God is not limited to a God with attributes of personhood, who intervenes in human affairs and listens and responds to prayer. Rather, it embraces a wide range of theological perspectives. We must keep in mind that when our traditional prayers address God as Sovereign, Parent, Creator, Judge, Savior, Shield, Healer, Helper, Rock, Redeemer, Teacher -- these are metaphors, not doctrine or dogma. And the prayers within which they are contained are not prose, but poetry. Their aim is not to limit or define, but to evoke, to help us express the inexpressible, to say Wow! And Help! And Thanks!

In the 1979 Robert Aldrich film, "The Frisco Kid," Gene Wilder plays Avram, a young rabbi sent from Poland to San Francisco in 1850. At one point he's taken captive by Indians, who don't know what to make of this strange, holy man who is willing risk his life to protect a small handwritten scroll he calls "the Toyrah." In the midst of a severe drought, the Indians have tried every ritual they know to cause rain, without success. Chief Gray Cloud asks, "Yes or no, can your God make rain?" "Yes." Avram replies. "But he doesn't?" "No." The chief demands to know why not. Avram replies, "He doesn't make rain. He gives us strength when we're suffering. He gives us compassion when all we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we're searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness. ... but He does not make rain!" Suddenly, there is thunder and lightning, followed by a torrential downpour. Avram continues, "Of course ... sometimes, just like that, He'll change His mind."

So can we. Religious faith is not a simple thing. The very word Israel, Yisrael, means to wrestle with God, and wrestling can be hard and painful. Sometimes I wish it were easy. How comforting it must be to have no doubts, see no ambiguity, just complete and utter certainty that God is in charge of the universe and, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, everything is right with the world or will be made right somehow in the fullness of time.

There is something admirable about absolute, unquestioning faith, but taken too far, it can lead to intolerance and fanaticism. It can also oversimplify life's complexities and trivialize the challenges of existence. Like atheism and agnosticism, unquestioning faith, can be complacent, intellectually lazy and self-indulgent, thereby bringing the whole enterprise of religion and prayer into disrespect or ridicule. Prayers before sporting events fall in that category, as do players who drop to one knee in prayer after making a touchdown pass or begin post-game interviews by saying, "First of all, I want to thank my Lord and Saviour..." A New Yorker cartoon captures the irony of such a theological position. An football player says to an interviewer, "First, I'd like to blame the Lord for causing us to lose today."

In a Joseph Heller's classic novel, "Catch-22," Yossarian and Lt. Scheisskopf's wife, with whom he's having an affair, have a heated confrontation about God. Yossarian says, "Don't tell me God works in mysterious ways. There's nothing mysterious about it. He's not working at all. Or else he's forgotten all about us." As his comments about God get coarser and harsher, she gets very upset and lashes out at him. "Stop it!" she demands. "What ... are you getting so upset about?" he asks, bewildered. "I thought you didn't believe in God." "I don't," she said, sobbing. "But the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be." Yossarian replies, "Let's have a little more religious freedom between us. You don't believe in the God you want to, and I won't believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?" Heller was on to something. Even if we don't believe or aren't sure we believe in a personal God with attributes of goodness, love and mercy, that concept teaches us qualities we should exemplify.

There is also much to be said for living with an open mind and an open heart. Life is a great teacher and as we journey through it our experiences cause us to revise our ideas and beliefs, time and again. In a beautiful essay some years ago in Reform Judaism magazine, "The God I Don't Believe in Showed up Today," Barbara Shuman wrote that she had long proclaimed her lack of belief in a personal God who hears and responds to prayers. But then her father-in-law and mother-in-law experienced simultaneous health crises. She wrote:

I find myself calling out to the God [I don't believe in], asking for their health to be restored, for their physicians to be guided, for our family to be strengthened. Today I want to know God the Healer, God the Protector, God of the [prayerbook] I so often put aside because I don't believe in words addressed to a being who hears my cries. And so, even though I don't believe, I ask this God, "Open my lips. Grant me the ability to pray, to feel your presence, to know that ultimately all is in your hands. Be with us in our hour of darkness. Hold us in your hand. Grant me courage and faith, above all faith in the One I don't believe in."

I am often clearer on what I don't believe about God than what I do. I don't believe that God cares about or influences sports or weather. Although insurance policies call natural disasters "acts of God," I don't believe God decides how or when people die. I live more comfortably with the belief that life can be unspeakably cruel and unfair, that senseless tragedies occur, than with the idea that God allows or causes undeserved suffering or that God has the power to prevent evil from occurring, but chooses not to use it.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk answered the question, "Where is God to be found?"

"Wherever we let God in." I believe that just as the universe has a physical order, it has a moral order and a spiritual order, and that these three powerful, unified forces emanate from the same source, whom I call and address as "God." I experience God's presence in the wonders of nature and the arc of history that bends toward justice, in the power of art, poetry and music, in the boundless promise of America and the beauty of the land of Israel, in the rhythms and rituals of Jewish observance, in loving relationships and simple acts of kindness. I experience God's presence when I open my eyes, mind and heart and soul to the extraordinary that lurks behind the ordinary, when I embrace the miracles concealed in, and revealed by, the Mystery, that wait, that long, to be discovered.

I don't know if God is aware of us, hears our prayers or answers them. As a teacher once told me when I asked if he believed in God, "I live in the tension between believing and not believing." There is wisdom in the adage, "Pray as if everything depends on God. Act as if everything depends on you." And as our prayerbook says, "If we rise from prayer better persons, our prayers have been answered." Even in those times when I can't believe in a God who knows, loves and cares for each of us personally, I fervently hope that is true, and I try to pray and live as if it is. Doing so makes me better and, I trust, worthier of God's love and care, and of the abundant blessings I have received, so far beyond my deserving.