We know of G'd's existence. Rambam (Moses Maimonides - 13th century scolar) defines G'd as the first cause. So, regardless of how one might believe we got here: big bang, evolution, entropy theory etc, one would need the cause that began the system.
Since this first cause always existed, it will always exist (you can't stop the car if you never started it). Based on the space/time continuum, something that takes no time - takes no space.
We believe that G'd is actively involved with the creation each and every second. Take, for example, a rock. Rocks do nothing - they just sit and will continue to sit until a force greater than gravity is exerted upon the rock. Then the rock moves. The rock will continue to move until that force is exhausted.
Likewise, there was nothing before creation. Nothing does nothing. The Almighty exerted a creative force upon the nothing making it a something. That something is a something for as long as Hashem keeps that force enclothed into the nothing.
Aristotle would maintain that G'd exerted that force a long time ago and stepped back. Jews believe that Hashem is Almighty. Hashem cannot step back as that would limit Hashem.
All the surveys seem to show that belief in God is high among Americans of all ethnic groups and religions except for Jews. Perhaps it is because we Jews historically have been trained to be sceptical and questioning. The same scepticism that Abraham had for idolatry, according to our legends, we – ironically – now have for belief in God. Perhaps Jewish belief is a function of higher education. The same surveys indicate that belief in God declines in direct proportion to educational achievement. That is to say, those with advanced degrees tend to characterize themselves as those with weaker beliefs than those without. Since Jews tend to be high academic achievers, we can see the results.
A few observations are in order. First, some people have almost in innate religious capacity. Some neuroscientists today have argued that human beings are hard-wired for belief, although it is not uniformly manifested across the population. Even those people who deny any strong belief in God will, in times of stress, call on divine assistance. (Thus the old saw: there are no atheists in fox-holes.”) Second, people are hardly ever convinced by argument to believe in God. Since the Middle Ages many European thinkers believed that God’s existence could be demonstrated by logical argument and, once presented with the evidence, doubters would have no choice but to believe. Even the Midrash (cf. Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, Vol. 1, p.193) asserts that Abraham engaged in these kinds of polemics. But today, the idea of using reason to convince the head to accept God when the heart refuses has all but been abandoned. Third, the single greatest obstacle to monotheistic belief is the problem of evil. That the God we claim to exist is good and all powerful and yet evil is real and persists is a dilemma requiring either the denial that God is all good or that God is all powerful. In either case, the God that remains is lessened and allegiance to that God is questionable. After the Sho’ah – unimaginable evil - the dilemma is even sharper. Fourth, Judaism has maintained that practice trumps belief. That is to say, what counts is how we behave, not what we believe. Thus, the rabbis imagined God saying; “Would that they [meaning Israel] had forsaken Me and observed My Torah…” (Lamentations Rabbah, Introduction). On this view, belief in Judaism remains an open question. But practice is essential and necessary. Consequently, many more books are published today on Jewish practice than on Jewish belief. Lastly, some authorities have simply made belief in God a command rather than an option. Nahmanides, for example, in his commentary to Deuteronomy 6:4, sees no need to explain how to come to belief but only demand that one believes.
With these observations, I would suggest a heavy dose of Heschel. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (d. 1972) has written the single most important book on the subject in the modern period: Man’s Quest for God. It would be an injustice for me to even try to capture the stylistic beauty of his prose. But his main idea is easily captured: belief in God is a consequence of standing in awe at the world in which we live. When one feels exposed to a power greater than oneself, one is on the way to God. When one feels a longing for meaning, one begins a search for God. When one’s soul aspires to greater heights, one is living under the influence of God. Ultimately, these are the aspects of belief.
It happened again this week—this time at the gym. Just as I was finishing my workout, someone called to me: “You’re Rabbi Geller, right?” “Right.” “You know what, rabbi? I don’t believe in God.”
It is hard to know how to respond when that happens. Usually I mumble about giving me a call to discuss it. Other times, when I have more time, I ask the person to describe the “god” he or she doesn’t believe in.
Nine times out of ten it is the god that the person first met as a child, the one who looks like an old man with a beard who lives somewhere in the sky and knows if you’ve been bad or good. The person is usually surprised when I say: “You know, I don’t believe in that ‘god’ either.”
The more we talk, the more the person shares how for him, coming to synagogue only reinforces that image of a god. Even our prayer book, gender neutral as it is, seems to support the image of a powerful ruler, delivering us from oppressors and saving us from tyrants. While the words don’t actually say it, this god looks like a king or a powerful father.
I don’t believe in that god either.
The God I believe in is closer to the God revealed in the burning bush. When Moses noticed a bush that was burning without being burned up.,he stopped, turned around and paid attention (Exodus 3:3). How many others had passed that bush but hadn’t turned to look? We don’t know. We only know that Moses paid attention. And when Moses asked God’s name, the response was: “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh; I will be what I will be” (3:13–14). Ehyeh is the future tense of the verb, to be.
So what is the name YHVH, the name we use for God? It seems to be a version of the present tense. It seems to mean: “IS.”
To say God is “IS-ness” is a little different from saying that god is that old man in the sky with the beard.
Imagine how YHVH might be pronounced if we actually pronounced it? It is all sounds of breathing, breathing in, and breathing out. Imagine that one of God’s names is the sound of breathing, and then ask yourself: “How many times today have I said God’s name?”
How many times have you stopped and noticed? The psalmist says: “With every breath, we praise God” (Psalm 150:6).
The challenge is to pay attention, to notice that God is as much a part of us as breathing and as necessary as our own breath. And just as our breath links us to the breath of every living thing, we are connected to every thing that lives. And then the challenge is to ask ourselves what difference it ought to make in our lives if we really feel that we are connected, that we are a part of a much larger whole, to a One-ness.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein reports in his book Tough Questions Jews Ask that when he asks teenagers if they believe in God they often say no. But when he asks them if they have ever had an experience that makes them feel close to a power that transcends them, they say yes, and then go on to describe the experience. The problem seems to be in the naming the experience “Godly.”
So for me, it is not helpful to talk about believing in God. I don’t discover God through intellectual cognition but rather through experience. For me, God is the truth of the present moment. God simply IS.
Think about the “god” you don’t believe in. Is it that you don’t believe in God or is it that you are stuck on one particular metaphor that doesn’t name your experience of God? Might there be a different metaphor that opens up the possibility of encounter with a power grander than yourself, with a web that can connect every person to every other person? For me, that power is the Divine presence.
Here are some other metaphors: God is the engine that powers the universe and God is the gas in the engine; God is the Internet server that links us all together and the universe is the hardware; God is the ocean and we are the waves. God is the one breathing us and God is the breath.
The first step is paying attention, noticing those moments when you are overwhelmed by beauty, grandeur, awe, gratitude…when you realize how small you are within an infinite universe. The second step is asking yourself what difference it makes. If you can glimpse a sense of the divine presence, then how can you create a life worthy to be lived in the presence of God?
(A version of this response first appeared in my commentary on Va-eira in Reform Voices of Torah on the Union for Reform Judaism website.)
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