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.)
Answered by: Rabbi Laura Geller