David Z. Vaisberg
Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham


A monk, a priest and a rabbi are meeting together for an interfaith clergy meeting, and all of a sudden the lights go out. What do they do? The monk takes the opportunity to teach his colleagues about the importance of meditation as a pathway to finding our inner light. The priest follows his colleague with words about the power of God to illuminate our path. And the rabbi? He goes and gets a flashlight.[1]

We Jews are a people of action. We certainly like to think, and talk, and contemplate, but we think and talk about contemplate about problems and solutions, about politics, about work, about what we’ll cook, or eat, at the next holiday meal. Less often do we consider taking a course in contemplative meditation or the nature of God.

As a rabbinical student in my chaplaincy training at New York Presbyterian, I was part of a multi-faith group of clergy students, and part of our training was visiting any and all patients in need of spiritual counseling. As an interfaith group we did not restrict ourselves to patients of a particular religion— Jews could visit Christians and Muslims, and vice versa.

An observation shared with us and validated over and over again was that of all patients, it was Christians who loved talking about God – anything and everything to do with God and scripture: God’s connection to them, God’s love, God’s support, how God is getting them through their pain, or how they don’t understand how God could allow them to be feeling what they’re feeling. And as a Jew and a rabbinical student, this kind of conversation was completely foreign to me.

Jews in the hospital simply did not seek to discuss God. They just weren’t interested. In my whole summer working at the hospital, I had one theological conversation with a Jew, and an agnostic Jew at that, who wished to have a philosophical conversation, and only a philosophical conversation.

I surveyed our lunch ‘n learn crew the other day on reasons for coming to high holiday services. This survey offered a full array of possibilities, including such responses as “I come because my (husband/wife/boss/partner/parent) asked/told me to.”[2] Unsurprisingly to me, the most popular answers among our class were, ”I come to connect with the Jewish community,” “I come to connect with Jewish culture and history,” and “I come because this is what Jews to.” We are a people tied to each other in covenant and community, and we are a people comfortably rooted in tradition. It might be being with the community that got us here, it might be liking the music and practice of the high holidays, and it might even be out of nostalgia for childhood.

So what was the least popular reason for coming? “I come to pray to God, to repent my sins against God, and to ask forgiveness of God.”

It would seem that many of us are really uncomfortable with the notion of a God who actively judges us, and who determines when and how we will live or die. Some of us are skeptical, some of us are bothered, and some of us simply don’t believe.

Yet, every holiday season we return to U’n’taneh Tokef – one of those prayers that seem as old as Sinai itself, that presents this very God as reality. But because this prayer is such an important part of our traditional high holiday practice, most of us relish hearing its moving notes, without considering too seriously its words and theological implications — that God will determine whether we live or die for the coming year based on what we’ve done and whether we’ve done t’shuvah (repentance), t’fillah (prayer) and tz’dakah (tzedakah!). Frankly, I feel ok with the incongruity of praying U’n’taneh Tokef without believing the words’ literal meanings. There’s something to be said for praying this central high holiday statement with Jews all over the world, and the deeper meanings that comes through interpreting the text with some allegory are really powerful.

But, this sense of incongruity between wanting the prayer and finding the content problematic leaves us with a question: What is this God we don’t believe in, and what is the God in which we do believe?

There’s a well-known Talmudic text that sits above many arks and sanctuary entrances. דע לפני מי אתה עומד (Babylonian Talmud B’rachot 28b) Know before whom you stand. Rabbi Eliezer, in this passage, tells us that when we pray, we must know, as much possible, the One before Whom we stand— God. In this high holiday season, knowing the one before whom we spiritually strip down to bare our souls for judgment and repair is absolutely necessary if our prayers are going to be offered with integrity and fullness.

So for those of us who aren’t sure, who either don’t know, or who oscillate between knowing and not, let’s do some exploring.

According to recent surveys, 95% of Americans believe in God,[3] and Jews? 70% believe in God.[4][5] But let’s be clear—the survey that asked about belief in God did not specify what the idea of God entailed. And later when the question is asked, the answers to what the idea of God means will be anything but uniform.

One idea of God with whom many of us do not connect, including myself, is a God we hear about often, one in which many Americans actually do still believe, and one that philosopher Charles Taylor defines as the 15th century Western European model. This is a God responsible for all natural events great in magnitude, like tsunamis and earthquakes. This God has a hand in the selection of monarchs and kingdoms, and who is not only present Himself in the world (and yes, this is a male God), but who also brings with Him spirits, demons, and moral forces.[6] Indeed, according to a study conducted by Paul Froese and Christopher Baylor in their study America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What that Says about Us, many average Americans believe that “God can alter the natural world,” that God has the United States in His plan (and again, His is deliberate), and that “spirits, demons and moral forces [do] exist in this world.” And, if this describes your belief, wonderful. Aside from the United States piece, it is consistent with some Jewish theologies.

Many of us, however, do not and cannot buy into this idea of God who actively intervenes in our world and when pictured in our mind’s eye looks a little bit like Zeus.

As I mentioned, Froese and Baylor’s study is called America’s Four Gods. It’s named so because Froese and Baylor found that when it comes down to it, Americans believe in four kinds, or ideas of, God. They are, (1) an Authoritative God who is actively engaged in the world and judgmental, (2) a Benevolent God who is actively engaged in the world but not judgmental, (3) a Critical God who is full of judgment but does not actively engage in the world, and (4) a Distant God who is non-judgmental and non-engaged.[7]

Let’s break these ideas down. To illustrate them in a practical way, let’s pair them with a problem posed in recent history— the question of “where was God in the Shoah,” or more technically correct, “what was God’s involvement or connection, if at all, to the Shoah.”

The first, the Authoritative God, would be one who used the Nazis as a divine tool to punish the Jews for wrongful behavior. Not always so popular among our crowd. The second, the Benevolent God, would be one who did not bring about the Shoah as a punishment for Jews, but who did cause certain positive things to happen that enabled Jews to survive. This one may be a little more popular here. The third, the critical God, would be one who had nothing to do with the Holocaust but would punish the perpetrators in the afterlife and reward those Jews who suffered and held on to their faith— also a nice one. The fourth idea—the Distant God—is a God that does not intervene nor have feelings about what’s going on in this world, which means that God had absolutely nothing to do with the Shoah. This is not necessarily a feel-good God, but for many it is one that makes more sense.

You may be starting to think about which one of these four best describes your own personal beliefs. And, you may be curious about where my beliefs lie. The answer is that I don’t actually have a firm theological position. I struggle with the role of God in my life, and what I believe about God. Sometimes I do believe that God really does care about what happens in this world  a sort of benevolent God, though I’m pretty firm in my belief that God does not actively intervene in the natural world, but more often, the Distant God — the one believed in by 24% of Americans— makes much more sense to me.

This Distant God may in fact be the idea of God that makes sense to people who really don’t believe in that 15th century European God I mentioned before. This idea is one that God is not so much a being with whom we can relate as one in whom we can reside, and in whom we can find connection to something greater than ourselves. And, the concept of a Distant God is nothing new—it is very closely aligned with the theologies of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and none other than Moses Maimonides.

First, Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza understood God as the creator and source of the universe, much in the way that proponents of String Theory today believe (yes, they believe, remember that term for later) that a single particle is the basic building block for absolutely everything in the universe. For Spinoza, God is this oneness, this building block, and the basic fabric of the universe. God is that which brings connects us all. God exists as the laws and material of the universe. Which means that we can find and experience God everywhere — in relationships, in music, in awe-inspiring beauty. But it also means that if God is indistinguishable from the laws of nature, God is certainly not going to alter them. Nature is God, God is nature, and we are all more than just images of divine —we are glimpses of Creation.

Now, Maimonides.  Moses Maimonides actually, maybe even surprisingly, went quite far from what we might expect of a rabbinic scholar, and certainly from early biblical theology. Maimonides understood only that God was far beyond anything that the human mind could ever conceive; God is infinite and unknowable. The only way that Maimonides could describe God was in describing what God was not — God has no body, God has no parts, God is not physical, and God has no beginning or end. And, if all these negative statements hold true — and we can have a lengthy study session on this later if you wish — then God cannot act in this physical world, nor have different emotional states in response to our actions. To act, or to feel, would imply change, beginnings and endings in God, which would make no sense in his model. To be Jewish, for Maimonides, is to live in covenant with our tradition which we believe was transmitted to us by those who figured out the unknowable. (I’m still wrapping my mind around this.) For Maimonides, following Torah means following a perfect teaching that guides us on how best to live in connection with others and the world around us. In a way, for Maimonides, God is less a being, and more the fundamental formula or idea that governs the universe. Like E=MC2 on an even greater cosmic scale.[8]

Now it may be that these ideas for God are rather confusing, and it may be that they’re refreshing. Or troubling, perhaps. All of these reactions are appropriate, because there are different ways for everyone to connect or know that Sacred Divine Unknown we refer to as God. What’s important is that we continue seeking, we continue challenging ourselves, and we continue struggling to find a deeper spiritual connection, whatever that may look like. Let’s remember that not being sure of what to believe is actually quite common, and a very real part of the Jewish journey. And we progress on this journey of growth through study, through praying from our holiday, Shabbat and weekday liturgy, and through reflection and meditation.

I believe this struggle to be worthwhile, from the core of my being, because believing in something divine that connects us all really does make our lives better. To know that there is Sacred Oneness in this universe means that we are not alone, and that we are part of something great. It may mean always knowing that there is someone out there who cares for you; it may mean that when we experience something beautiful and inspiring, we realize that as different as it is, we are connected; or that the fact that the universe exists as it does, with all its near-perfection, and that we can freely operate within it, and choose to live in relationship with others, is beautiful.

Shlomo Carlebach z’‘l told a story: someone came to him and said, “I don’t believe in God. Will there be a punishment for me?” Carlebach responded “the punishment is that you have to live in a world that doesn’t believe in God.”[9]

I don’t know that it matters whether or not we believe in God as a divine judge for the words of our High Holy days’ prayers to be meaningful. What matters is that we endeavor to find some kind of God that we can believe in, something that we can tap into to sense that great and timeless connection. What matters is that we explore and struggle with and challenge our concepts of how we plug in to everything else, because to know that we exist in relation to something greater is to know that we are responsible to something greater, and part of something enormously awesome.

Let’s go back to Rabbi Eliezer’s urge,דע לפני מי אתה עומד – know before whom you stand. There’s something said here, and there’s something left up to us. Rabbi Eliezer with his talmudic authority instructs us to know God. What he leaves up to us, though, is figuring out who this God really is.

Rabbi Shefa Gold, a contemporary mystic and composer, offers what may be a helpful solution to our theological quandary. She simply refers to God as the Great Mystery, and that name is enough to draw her in, in connection and intimacy. She writes,

As I chant, I am called into intimacy with The Great Mystery who stands before me. That Mystery is disguised as this world, as my life. As I stand before that Mystery I am called into my power, in order to fully engage. The veil between me and the world-as-God drops away, and I can experience the intimate knowing that I am not a separate observer, but rather an integral part of The Mystery of existence.[10]

As we embark on this sacred and transformative journey known as Yamim Nora’im — the days of awe — may this grand mystery known as God bring for us struggle and resolution, conflict and growth. Easy faith is not often the Jewish answer. Serious faith, and prayers of integrity, come only to those who work at it. These holidays, rather than rejecting, ignoring, or being ashamed of our struggles, let us engage them head on, together.

Shana Tova U’m’tuka.

[1] Korngold, Jamie. The God Upgrade. Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2011. 29.

[2] Survey from Korngold, 99.

[3] Froese, Paul and Christopher Bader. America’s Four Gods. New York: Oxford, 2010.

[4] Humphrey Taylor, “Most Americans Believe in God but There is No Consensus on His.Her Gender, Form or Degree of Control Over Events,” Harris Poll #60, October 16, 2003, http://www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris-Interactive-Poll-Research-Most-Americans-Believe-in-God-but-There-Is-No-Cons-2003-10.pdf

[5] The Harris study whence this data comes is from 2003, but I doubt our theologies have changed that much in a decade.

[6] Froese and Bader, 1-2.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Korngold, 45.

[9] Korngold.

[10] http://www.rabbishefagold.com/standing-before-mystery/, accessed on August 30 2015.

About the Author
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg is Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey.
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