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Outreach to Jewish Secularists and Atheists

Yom Kippur 2004

by Harold M. Schulweis

Philosophers and theologians agree you can't define God, and sociologists agree you can't define Jews. We Jews are a singular people. Race? Nation? Religion? Have you ever heard of an Episcopalian agnostic or a secular Baptist or a Jehovah Witness atheist? Such contradictions are oxymorons. but secular Jews, atheist Jews and agnostic Jews produce no shock. In fact, they comprise the largest constituency of the Jewish people.

I admire that inclusiveness in Judaism. There is no Jewish dogma that excludes non-believing Jews from their identity, from their belonging, from salvation.

Indeed, we are rather proprietary when it comes to such secular Jews. Like Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein (and we can throw in Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion), we are proud of our pluralistic Jewish people.

To console me, one of my friends argued that all Jews, regardless of their belief or disbelief, pray the same prayer, only with a different dialect. The traditional Jew prays, "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad." Not to be outdone, the atheist Jew prays, "Shema Yisrael, I deny Eloheinu, I deny Echad." And the agnostic Jew recites, "Shema Yisrael, I dunno Eloheino, I dunno Echad."

Still, this is Yom Kippur, the day of return, and this largest constituency is absent. They are not here; our secular brothers and sisters are not in the Synagogue with us.

Most of them are unaffiliated, un-synagogued, standing outside the religious tent. In Israel and in the Diaspora, they are called "apikorsim,”  "free thinkers,”  the doubters, the skeptics, the deniers, and I miss them.

I miss them because they are part and parcel of our people. They are my own mishpachah. I am guided by the principle of "ahavat yisrael,”  the love of the Jewish people. And I am indebted to one of the great Jewish thinkers of our century, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, an Orthodox Talmudist, a mystic and the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine who, in his prayer, wrote this love song to his people:

So Rabbi Kook, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, associated with atheist socialists, members of the secular kibbutzim, people who violated the Sabbath, the laws of kashruth, and declared their unbelief in God.

For this, Rabbi Kook was severely attacked by other Orthodox rabbis. They asked, "How can you befriend unbelievers, fraternize with heretics?"

Rabbi Kook replied, "You know that in the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, only the High Priest, and only at Yom Kippur, would change his clothes and enter the Holy of Holies. But who built this Holy of Holies? Secular workers with profane tools and muddy boots. Most of the workers who built the Temple were not  religious. But holiness may be born of the profane.”

"But Rabbi, these people are atheists!" Rabbi Kook answered, "And why did God allow atheism in this world, and why did He allow atheists? Because God needs atheism."

"What for, Rabbi?"

"Because atheism cleanses the dross of 'petty religion,’ the narrowness and provincialism of established Jewish religion that frequently becomes arrogant, rigid and judgmental. We need these people, these atheists, whom seek to befriend.”

Rabbi Kook challenges me, he challenges all of us: How can we create a common language of the sacred and the holy for all our people? Can we create an authentic dialogue, a vocabulary to bridge the "God-gap?"

It is tempting to divide neatly the Jewish world into those inside the sanctuary and those pro-fanum (which literally means "outside the sanctuary”), between those who believe and are members, and those who are unaffiliated and unbelieving.

I have been in the Rabbinate for many years, and I have discovered that there are sparks of piety in atheists and sparks of skepticism in believers, religious atheists and agnostics. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest himself had to atone for his own sins, the sins of his family and had also to atone for the holy sanctuary itself.

So let's begin with ourselves.

I teach a post-confirmation class with our children, yours and mine, and they are the windows to my world. They have been Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah, they have attended our Hebrew Schools and our Day Schools. In the year before they choose to enter a college, I teach Jewish philosophy and Jewish theology. I teach them about God and prayer and the confrontation of evil. I would like to invite you to come with me into the classroom. There you will find bright young men and women, committed to science and political action, articulate except when it comes to "God-talk." Oddly enough, when it comes to talking about God and prayer, they are shy.

They are not unlearned. They know the narratives of the Bible, but not God. They know the prayers, but not God. They know rituals – the "what,”  the "where,”  the "whens" of ritual behavior. But they know remarkably little about religious belief. So it is possible to belong and behave, but not to believe.

Something is missing here in the class. When I ask them about God, their belief, they grow silent and, like the fourth son of the Passover Seder, they don't know how to ask. They are silent about God, not because of reverence, but because of irrelevance,  and not because of ignorance, but from indifference. How have my kids learned about God? Not from the family and not from the school. They have learned it from the street, they have learned it from songs and movies and cartoons. They have learned that God is "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound." Superman is the model of the supernatural God. Superman is not of this world. He comes from a different planet and if he wishes, he can intervene, he can swoop down upon this world to frustrate and punish villains, and to rescue and save the innocent. It is a powerful cartoon and it plants the seeds of a child's view of God. They were raised to believe in Superman, they want to believe in Superman, they want to praise him, they want to petition him. But as they grow older, it gets harder for them to believe.

In the beginning of the course, I present various classical and modern arguments to prove God's existence, but I know that the proofs are not working.

So one night, I go to the blackboard and draw Column A, and I ask how many of you believe these statements:

God is merciful 
God is just 
God is forgiving 
God feeds the hungry 
God cares for the sick 
God raises the fallen 
God protects the innocent

Some hands go up, but more do not. Why not, I ask, and the answer is, "I would like to believe, but I can't." Why not? And then they tell me the stories of friends and family, human tragedies in which innocent children have been stricken down by illness. Others point out the atrocities of the Holocaust, the genocide of Rwanda, Sudan, the beheading of innocent people who are captured by terrorists, the murder by suicide bombers. They want to believe but there are facts which stand in the way.

In the next class session I draw Column B:

Mercy is Godly 
Justice is Godly 
Forgiveness is Godly 
Feeding the hungry is Godly 
Curing the sick is Godly 
Raising the fallen is Godly 
Protecting the innocent is Godly

How many believe this? And here there is a flurry of raised hands. "Yes" to Column B, but "No" to Column A. What is the difference? In Column A, God stands as a noun, a "she" or "he" or "it.” In Column A, the relationship between God and the human being is vertical – it is from up to down. In Column A you wait, you have faith, you are obedient. You wait for the arm of God to save, rescue and redeem. Your obligation is to obey, to praise, to petition someone not yourself.

But if in Column A God is a noun, in Column B God is a verb or an adverb. If in Column A the view is vertical, in Column B the view is horizontal. If in Column A you pray "to,”  in Column B, you pray "with.”

If in Column A your prayer is dependant, passive, acquiescent, in Column B you pray interdependently. You and God are together. You are, in the language of our sages, "shutaf lakodesh Barchu bemaaseh bereshith." You are partners, allies, friends of God. You are indispensable, you are needed, there is in you Godliness and even when you pray, the prayer addresses the Godliness in you and between us.

When Moses is confronted by pursuing Egyptian warriors and a threatening sea, Moses prays to God and prolongs his prayer that God intervene. He asks that God does his battle. And God replies, "Why do you pray to me? Speak to the people and go forth."

Prayer is not meant to move God – prayer is meant to move you and me, to move the Godliness in you and me, and to move us out of the pew and into the marketplace, out of our designated seats, into the world.

Prayer is to remind us of who we are, of the Divine potentiality in all of us. Prayer is a reflexive word in Hebrew, "mitpallel.” It asks of us to emulate, imitate, actualize, no "who,”  but "what.” You are included in every prayer.

On page 306 of the Machzor, we find the answer to Moses' query, "Who are You and what is Your name?" And the answer, the self-revelation of God, is in Godliness, in Elohuth. Here are the thirteen attributes, the thirteen qualities of Godliness. In these qualities of Godliness, we are to behave. Behaving, we believe. Act Godly: Have compassion for the weak. Have mercy for the disadvantaged. Forgive and be patient with your fellow human beings. Feed the hungry. Raise up those who are fallen. Clothe the naked. That is what Godliness is and what Godliness demands of us.

How then do you know that God exists, or that God intervenes, or that God is good, or that God is patient, or that God is forgiving? Not by philosophical proofs, but by existential living. In Isaiah, the prophet says, "You are my witnesses," to which the rabbis add, "God says to us, 'If you are My witnesses, then I am God. But if you are not My witnesses, then I am not God.'" God depends upon humanity, and in the Covenant between God and Israel, God depends upon the Jewish witness.

You can have a Machzor, you can have a tallit, you can have a kippah, but the indispensable need for prayer is belief in Godliness which is in me, in you, in community.

If the prayer appears irrelevant, it's because it treats you as irrelevant. If the prayer is boring, it's because it treats you as boring.

The love of God is understood adverbially.

Pray "with all your heart; soul; might." How do I pray myself?

From the Machzor, page 218:  "Thou, O Lord, art mighty forever. Thou callest the dead to immortal life for Thou art mighty in salvation. Thou sustainest the living with loving-kindness, and in great mercy grantest everlasting life to those who have passed away. Thou upholdest the falling, healest the sick, settest free those in bondage, and keepest faith with those that sleep in the dust. Who is like unto Thee, Almighty King, who decreest death and grantest immortal life and bringest forth salvation? Who may be compared to Thee, Father of mercy, who in love rememberest Thy creatures unto life? Faithful art Thou to grant eternal life to the departed. Blessed art Thou, Oh Lord, who callest the dead to life everlasting.”  

So I reach out to the Jewish atheists, the so-called "unbeliever,”  and I tell you that I know your neshamah, I know your soul, I know your spirit.

My teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel entitled his book of Yiddish poetry, The Ineffable Name of God– the Human Being. How do you find God? You find God in the following:

From the Machzor Page 29-30:

Blessed art Thou, O lord our God, King of the universe, who openest the eyes of the blind. 
Blessed art Thou, O lord our God, King of the universe, who clothest the naked. 
Blessed art Thou, O lord our God, King of the universe, who releasest the bound. 
Blessed art Thou, O lord our God, King of the universe, who raisest up those who are bowed down. 
Blessed art Thou, O lord our God, King of the universe, who stretchest out the earth over the waters. 
Blessed art Thou, O lord our God, King of the universe, who hast provided for all my needs. 
Blessed art Thou, O lord our God, King of the universe, who guidest the steps of man. 
Blessed art Thou,O lord our God, King of the universe, who girdest Israel with strength. 
Blessed art Thou,O lord our God, King of the universe, who crownest Israel with glory. 
Blessed art Thou,O lord our God, King of the universe, who givest strength to the weary. 
Blessed art Thou,O lord our God, King of the universe, who removest sleep from mine eyes, yea, and slumber from mine eyelids.

Look at what is ascribed to God and imitate it.

I know Jewish atheists, the so-called "unbeliever,”  and when I have time, I find the depths of their neshama. Great rabbis did not excommunicate atheists!
Once there came the great Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, he who lived in the nineteenth century.  A man came who said, "Rabbi, I simply cannot believe."

"Why not, my son?" the rabbi asked. 

"Because I see in this world deceit and corruption." 

The rabbi answered, "So why do you care?" 

The man continued, "I see in this world hunger, poverty and homelessness." 

And the rabbi once again said, "So why do you care?" 

The man said, "What do you mean, Rabbi, why do I care? What else is there to care about but the way of the world?"

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk ended the conversation and said, "Do not be disturbed. If you care so much, you are a believer."
To care is to believe and to believe is to behave. We have to look at those who are not with us now to find in them the care that is concealed by disbelief, the hidden motive of the criticism of God. In Rabbi Kook's words: "Atheism arises out of painful outcry to liberate man from the darkness of the pit, to cleanse the air of arrogance and to protest against habit."
The unbeliever is not outside alone. The unbeliever is within us. And to all who stand outside, we say, "Come in!" To those who stand outside we say, on this Day of Atonement, this Day of Return, "Enter!"
We began the Kol Nidre service with a remarkable statement, that "Tonight we pray with the transgressors," for we are one people and there is the spark of holiness within each of us which must be brought forth to raise up the light of Godliness in each of us, in all of us, the whole of us. Embrace those outside us.
Do not cry, "Infidel!,”  "Heretic!,”  "Unbeliever!,”  "Cynic!,”  "Skeptic!" but cry, "Echad,”  the Oneness of God, the oneness of humanity, the oneness of the Jewish people. Recognize that there is Godliness that resides in each of us.

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Sat, October 16 2021 10 Cheshvan 5782