A Leap of Action
Erev Yom Kippur • Yom Kippur Eve
September 25, 2012 • 10 Tishrei 5773
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
Why are we here tonight? Each of us comes to Yom Kippur services for our own reasons. Tradition … connection to our pasts … to remember family … a love for the music or the Hebrew …. a desire to step back from ordinary life and reflect, to connect with our deepest selves … curiosity … or maybe simply because this is the time of year when Jews and our friends and family members gather together.
There is another reason some of us come. We want to meet God, or, for those for whom this word does not work, to connect with the Divine. We yearn for something to happen here to help us believe that God, or the Sacred, is real, and can make a difference in our lives. Sometimes something does happen, and we are inspired.
But often, if we came looking for God, we go home disappointed. The service was fine. I enjoyed the music. I learned something. I was with my friends, my family, but where was God?
Most of us learned, as children, about the God of the Bible and the Passover story, who splits the sea, gets angry and jealous, punishes some people, and saves others. But for many of us, as we grow to adulthood, this understanding of God becomes hard to reconcile with the real world. If we haven't been offered other ways to imagine the Divine, the Mystery, Spirit, the Holy, or whatever word we might use, we decide the whole idea is just a made-up story for kids, or perhaps something we wish we could believe, but just can’t.
Often this is actually what Rabbi Paul Yedwab calls "premature atheism." I know the words are amusing, but think for a moment about the idea. He’s not criticizing atheism; he’s saying it is a shame if people become atheists because they see only two extremes – no connection to the sacred, or belief in a God who sounds like an irrational, unscientific fantasy.
Here is how Charlie Varon, Bay Area Jew, moved beyond his childhood notion of God. He explains: "I remember myself 11, 12, 13 years old, moved by [the] Avinu Malkeinu … I remember the spiritual yearning … And our culture asked: 'Do you believe in God?' … I stumbled on this question for 30 years. … You mean a big guy up there, a Father, an Omnipotent Fella who created the earth 6,000 years ago and let the Holocaust happen?' 'Do you believe in God?' [It's] a yes/no question. … [It means] squeezing the infinite, mysterious spiritual through the toothpaste-tube of rationality. [Now, when people ask] 'Do you believe in God?' … I can happily say: 'I've discarded that question. I talk to God, and I still have no idea if I believe! …" *
This evening I want to suggest that we, too, try discarding, or at least putting aside, that question. Instead of the abstract notion of “belief,” which is actually not an important part of Jewish tradition, how about opening ourselves to connection with the Sacred, or to moments of transcendence?
When people tell me that they don’t believe in God, I often ask, “Who or what is the God you don’t believe in?” Most of the time it’s the God of Bible stories, the God Charlie Varon thought he was supposed to believe in … I don’t believe in that God either, and there are many Jewish theologians and teachers and rabbis who do not.
Judaism offers us so many other, often deeper, ways to think about God. One of the greatest Jewish philosophers, Maimonides, wrote 1,000 years ago that all we can know about the mystery we call God is what God is NOT. God is not a person, not a thing … Maimonides taught that the stories in the Torah are metaphors, not meant to be taken literally, and that the more we learn, the more we can look beneath those metaphors to their deeper meanings.
For Jewish mystics, the most basic understanding of God is as oneness: unity, beneath all the divisions in the world, oneness without end, called in Hebrew Eyn Sof. Mystics teach that we may sense aspects of Eyn Sof at times, and through learning and spiritual practices try to sense even more, though most of us will only have brief moments of connection with that oneness.
Some Jewish philosophers find the Holy among people. One of them, Martin Buber, of the 20th century, taught that when we truly open ourselves to the essence of another person, and meet them from our deepest selves, we can experience God in that soul-to-soul connection.
These are only a few, small tastes of the varied and sophisticated ways Jewish tradition speaks about God. See what Rabbi Yedwab means about premature atheism?
So, what if we are here to meet God, to connect with the Divine? How can we do this?
Thousands of years ago, our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, had just fled slavery in Egypt, and stood in the desert around Mount Sinai. Their leader, Moses, went up the mountain, and came down with teachings from God about how they were to create a new society. Moses asked them if they would follow God’s teachings. Not surprisingly, they didn’t just say, “Yes.” Instead, they said, “By doing, we will understand,” or in Hebrew, “na’aseh v’nishmah.”
This, our tradition teaches, can be a way to meet -- or better, experience -- the Sacred. Rather than trying to decide what we believe, we do, and then we seek to understand. This is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Jewish tradition – we do.
Charlie Varon talks to God. Some people light candles on Friday evening, share a special meal with friends or family, and then, eventually, reflect on what Shabbat means to them. Some visit and help to care for the sick – an important responsibility within Judaism – and then consider whether and how this might be a holy act, and might connect them to God. We do – we take a leap, not of faith, but of action – and through doing, and reflecting on our experiences, we discover what they may mean to us.
I want to close with a story about a woman who did just this.
Kathryn Morton's father was Jewish, but, she says, "I grew up a Secular Nothingist. . . . I wasn't inclined toward religion. I always thought [it] was a matter of … supernatural myths … and not dealing with the real world …"
When Kathryn's eight-year-old son Kenny became dangerously ill, she happened to run into the rabbi who had officiated at her father's funeral. She talked to him about her doubts, and asked whether Judaism had anything to offer. "Well . . .” he said, “religion is not a set of beliefs; religion is the totality of your response to life. It is what you do with what you've got. . . . [Y]ou're a very religious person. You're using your mind and your heart and your body trying to create an integrated and worthwhile family out of this chaos that has landed upon you."
Kathryn was surprised. "I thought religion was 'I believe in . . . this, this, and this.'" The rabbi said, "Well, that's one kind of religion. Come and see me." So she did. They talked about Kenny's illness, and the rabbi suggested, "Maybe this Friday night you can celebrate Shabbat. … Get all the pill bottles off the table, lay out a white cloth, light a couple of candles, serve something kind of nice. … There're prayers and stuff, but you don't have to get into that."
Kathryn tried it. "I was very self-conscious. I fixed Taco-Delight … we rolled Kenny up to the table … used the good china … had candles … it was really nice! … The kids are laughing … and we're all full and happy and the flowers are sort of glowing, and I thought … nobody on this block has got as much happiness … as we've got right here, right now. … [T]he next Friday we had our Shabbat again …"
Six weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, Kenny died. Kathryn and her family went to synagogue that evening. They kept making Shabbat on Friday nights. Eventually, Kathryn says, "I … decided to convert, and so did my husband … The whole thing was just too good to miss. The idea that to doubt and question's fine … is the pursuit of God … I liked that." **
How can we meet God? How can we experience the Sacred? Kathryn and her family show us one very Jewish way. We can put aside our need for proof, belief, even understanding. Instead, we can accept our doubts and our questions, and go ahead and build a life of holiness through our own, very human, actions.
“By doing, we will understand.” “Na’aseh v’nishmah.” Let us take leaps – of action – that can lead us towards connection with the Holy, towards experiences of transcendence, and perhaps, in this way, towards God.
Ken y'hi ratzon. May this be God's will, and our own.
*Or Shalom Jewish Community Newsletter, August 2002
** The Search for Meaning, Phillip Berman