“Why God should be Banished from Religion” – Yom Kippur Day 2011 – Fire Island Synagogue

Yom Kippur Day – 2011
Why God should be Banished from Religion

This is a confusing time for American Jews. The world around us is changing, and not in consistent ways. After World War II we emerged from the darkness as a deeply wounded people. We faced the true manifestation of hell on earth. As survivors or more likely as their progeny we are the lucky ones but with that comes the responsibility of digging through the rubble of broken dreams and the soldering ashes of a civilization built over 1000 years snuffed out in merely six. Rebuilding was arduous and painful. The only consolation, if indeed there was one, was that the enemy was clear and unequivocal. Some much needed relief came in the establishment of the State of Israel. Not a consolation for the death of six million souls but a historical reality that made us believe we can survive as a people, and that perhaps the world has not given up on us.

The Vietnam era enabled us to face down our government who mistakenly claimed, for their own self-interest, that the communists were as unequivocally evil as the Nazis. They were wrong. And a few decades after we hid under of desks at school waiting for an atomic bomb to drop from the skies we witnessed the Soviet Union collapse like a paper tigers and not roar like a Great Bear.

As Jews we acculturated in the liberalism of the 1960s and then renewed our sense of difference and tradition in the multiculturalism of the 1980s. We became a more balanced people. 1967 proved to us that Israel could defend itself. We entered a new era, not of prosperity, but of balance. For me the final sign of the acceptance of Jews in America was the inauguration of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum on the Washington Mall. America had made our history, their history. It was a deep recognition of our horrific past and a gesture of friendship. This was no longer the country of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford.

But that was a long time ago. Many things have changed. The Arab spring, as complicated and messy as it is and will continue to be, is the final act of extinguishing the fires of Soviet totalitarianism. The Soviet Union collapsed under its own repressive government in the 1980s but it took until 2010 for that to reach the vestiges of its influence in the Arab world. We are all understandably impatient but in historical time, 20 years is less than the blink of an eye.
The UN vote regarding Palestinian statehood is another chapter in the shifting sands of the seismic geo-political landscape. The issue for me is not “what do I think about it,?” About “it”? What exactly is “it”? A Palestinian State? The status quo? Israeli security? And what does that really mean? A nuclear catastrophe? A second Holocaust? These are frightening thoughts for sure but I think they are largely ruses. Not because any one of them could not happen (who can say something simply cannot happen? And it is just as absurd to say any one of these things will happen.). Rather, because thinking from the place of the worst case scenario is not a way to make good decisions. And making decisions as a response to unsubstantiated threats is not a healthy way to live, not in our personal lives, and not in our collective lives. Acting from fear rarely produces positive and long-lasting results. As psychoanalysts often say “there is something else at play here.” We all know that. If we acted in such ways in our personal lives, we might never leave the bomb shelters we would invariably build in our basements. David Koresh would have been a prophet and we would have been proven the fools.

So the real dilemma, for me, is: how do I think about these changes, what tools do I use? What are the operative categories? This becomes more prescient when our opposition is more elusive than the Nazis or even the communists. When the opposition is making similar claims to claims we once made, and make, about ourselves. Arafat was a great gift to us because he made it easy to oppose him, because he was an enemy with whom we were familiar, because he enabled us to reject him without looking into ourselves. The Soviet Union is gone and Arafat is dead. Yes, there is a square named after him in Ramallah, and yes his photo still hangs in the offices of the Palestinian Authority (note that photos of Lenin still hang in the Kremlin and one can easily buy a Confederate flag in most hardware stores in the south). We can think many things about this complex situation but if we found our thinking on the assumption that things don’t change, even metaphorically, I am afraid, as my analyst says, “there’s something else going on here.” Put otherwise, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but most of the time its not.”

There are essentially three groups of people I see addressing this issue from among our people in America. There are those who do not think the Palestinians deserve a state either because of their religious convictions or because they feel Israel has no moral obligation, that is, Israel’s claim for self-determination is, for whatever reason, is an exceptionalist claim. I understand this position as much as I disagree with it. For this group there is no difference between Arafat or Abbas, between George Habash or Salem Fayyad. Any distinction between non-violent resistance and violent resistance is false.

There is a second group that is devoted first and foremost to the moral obligation of a Palestinian State. They often downplay the security threats that will present to Israel. There are even those among them who do not believe Israel should be a Jewish state but a state for all its citizens, one liberal democratic state. Kind of like the country we live in. They demonize Israel as the main culprits in this crisis. These are the people behind the boycott movements. I can understand them even as I disagree with them. While their moral sentiments are understandable and even laudable they underestimate the context of Jewish history that serves as the foundation for the existence of Israel.

Then there is the third and deeply confused group that most of us belong to. American Jews who are trying to balance their commitment to justice with a sense of Jewish historical consciousness and a deep emotional mistrust of the world built on the foundations of centuries of abuse culminating in the Holocaust. We hid behind Arafat’s bellicose rhetoric and in a macabre way welcome the rantings of Iran’s president or any other Arab voice that enables us to feel that the enemy here is no different than it was 60 years ago. We are inclined to respond to more sober and legitimate claims of co-existence by pointing out discrepancies in the other side, past speeches, focusing on the use of terminology and nomenclature, in short, thinking conspiratorially. Mistrust is understandable. Making it a dogma is tragic. The emotional and psychological significance of this is that it enables us to not have to confront the deep contradictions in our own psyche, between our fear of security and our equally deep belief in the rights of all peoples, a belief that is rooted not only in our liberal conscience or the foundations of our American system, but in the annals of our tradition.

But today is Yom Kippur. It is not a day for politics. But it is a day for reckoning yet sometimes the internal quest for cleansing and the external quest for clarity coincide. I do not want to talk about politics. Most people here know what I think and many disagree with me. That is fine and, as the analytic philosophers like to say, as this is surely something about which intelligent people can disagree. I do, however, want to talk about God. Or, shall I say, the absence of God. From one perspective God is part of the problem. Religious extremism on the Muslim side has given birth to a jihadist mentality that makes our human struggle part of a hypostatized cosmic struggle. Religious extremism on the Jewish side is given to a particularly simplistic and crude reading of Torah as a political manifesto that makes an exclusivist claim about us and “our” land. It is true that Islamism is accountable for more human deaths and suffering than Jewish extremism. But that is not the issue, at least not today. For both, and here I say equally, when God is involved human beings seem to stop seeing one another as human beings. When God is involved, the face of the other easily becomes demonized. When God is involved human choices become infallible sacred doctrine. When God is involved, God’s people are too often juxtaposed to God’s enemy. Dylan lamented this reality long ago when he sang, “You don’t count the bodies, when God’s on your side.” I’m starting to sound like Bill Maher. But I don’t agree with Bill Maher. Bill Maher mistakenly conflates God with religion. The problem is not religion; the problem is that there is too much God in religion.
Religion demands of us to see the other in God’s image. Religion demands of us to care for the poor and the sick, the widow and the orphan. Religion demands we see the face of the other. Religion demands not that we be God’s army but that we act like God’s children. God demands obedience, religion demands compassion. But how can we have religion without God? I want to argue here specifically on the day when God seems to be at the center, and surely the center of our liturgy, that this is precisely what Judaism demands of us. This is precisely what Judaism has bequeathed to the world. A religion where God is existent but absent.

There is a midrashic teaching in Eicha Raba that goes something like this: ר’ הונא ור’ ירמיה בשם ר’ חייא בר אבא אמרי כתיב (ירמיה ט” ואותי עזבו ואת תורתי לא שמרו, הלואי אותי עזבו
ותורתי שמרו, מתוך שהיו מתעסקין בה המאור שבה היה מחזירן למוטב,
איכה רבה פתיחתא ב .

A fascinating teaching. In a sense the rabbis have God saying, “if it is between me and Torah, choose Torah.” In his essay “Loving the Torah more than God,” the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas comments on an anonymous story published in a Parisian Zionist periodical entitled “Yossele son of Yossele Rakover Speaks to God,” “The certainty of God is something Yossele, son of Yossel experiences with new force, beneath an empty sky. For he is so alone, it is in order to take upon his shoulders the whole of God’s responsibilities. The path that leads to the one God must be walked in part without God. True monotheism is duty bound to answer the legitimate demands of atheism…In the words of Yossel son of Yossel, ‘God has handed men over to their savage instincts…And since these instincts rule the world, it is natural that those who preserve a sense of divinity and purity should be the first victims of this rule.’” The Jews’ answer to atheism is not that God is everywhere, it is that God is nowhere, and only with that can we hope to find Him. The rabbis tell us that if a High Priest looks between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies on YK, he will go insane and die? Why will he go insane? Not because he will see God but because when he looks there he will see nothing. That is the truth that leads to insanity. Am I saying God doesn’t exist? No. But I am saying he is not there. And in that difference lies the genius of Judaism. Judaism is a religion of exile, and also a theology of the exiled God.

But if God is not there do we move in the direction of nihilism, as Dostoyesvsky wrote, “If God is dead, everything is permitted?” ? That is one way to look at it and Levinas acknowledges that we must atheism is a real risk we must take if we are to get at what he considers the great genus of Judaism. But it is not the only way. According to Levinas, God has given the world over to the injustice of human folly. But not completely. For there is something to be found, and it must be found. It is not given. Yossele son of Yossele continues, “To be a Jew means…to swim eternally against the filthy, criminal tide of man…I am happy to belong to the most unhappy people on earth, for whom the Torah represents all that is most beautiful in law and morality.’ Judaism does not take place between us and God. God has left us but He has not abandoned us. This is one way of understanding exile. He has left us his Torah. And so Yossele proclaims, “I love God, but I love even more his Torah.”

But what of this Torah that Yossele speaks? It is a Torah that says, “have compassion for the poor, the widow, and the orphan,” and it is a Torah that says about Israel’s enemies “show them no mercy.” First, we must break with God. The God of Torah is a God who is absent. This God cannot be used as a tool for human behavior because more often than not, this God becomes a club to bludgeon and not a salve to heal. The more God is present the more God is dangerous. This is Judaism’s subversive message. For Levinas this is Judaism’s great answer to the legitimate argument of atheism: abandon God and love His Torah. And what is legitimate Torah according to Levinas? That God is found in our relation to the other human beings who stands before me? He calls this “ethics as an optic.” “Everything I know of God and everything I can hear of His word and reasonably say to Him must find an ethical expression….The fact that the relationship with the Divine crosses the relationship with me and coincides with social justice is therefore what epitomizes the entire spirit of the Jewish Bible.” Ethics is not something the Torah commands – it is the very place where God is found. When we see the other for who she is, when we institute justice as a means toward human flourishing, we are not “doing God’s work,”; we are not fulfilling God’s will; we are revealing Gods’ presence. In other words, to find God in your life, don’t look to God, look to your neighbor, the other in need, the other for whom you are responsible.

Isn’t it the case, one might say, that this is all about Jews, that the neighbor in the Torah is the Jewish neighbor. For many centuries Jews have understood it this way and even today many of us who do not live inside that parochial mindset reflexively believe that, at least partly. How often have we heard Jews say regarding global crises, “Ok, that too is important but we must first take care of ourselves. If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?” For Levinas that is a false distinction. There is no legitimate particularism without the universal. Any particularism that does not bleed into a universalism is not an ethical act but a moral travesty and in the end it is a rejection of Torah. According to Levinas, God wants Torah to be a template for human flourishing not a badge of national honor. He gives Israel Torah and then disappears. He descends on Sinai. And then just as quickly disappears. Humanity now has the Torah through the Jews. They either will make it or they won’t. This is Levinas’ response to atheism. For Levinas, Judaism doesn’t prove there is a God, it shows there is a God through human responsibility. You do not need God to have Torah. You only need God to give Torah. But humans can use Torah to be human. And when we are human, there you will find God. There is a rabbinic teaching by the rabbinic sage Rabbi Meir, “’A pagan who knows Torah is equal to a High Priest who doesn’t.’ Levinas comments that this indicates the degree to which the notion of Israel can be separated, in the Talmud, from any historical, national, or racial notion.” In his essay “Israel and Universalism” Levinas argues, “The idea of a chosen people must not be taken as a sign of pride. It does not involve being aware of exceptional rights, but of exceptional duties. It is the prerogative of a moral consciousness itself…Jews also think that historically they have been faithful to this notion of Israel, but that is another (his)story.”

We have been raised to think that all we want is to be a normal people. But Levinas suggests we are not a normal people. We are a people of Torah. And Torah demands of us that we always see the other as our responsibility. Always. If we do not, God remains in hiding. If we do, Torah comes to life. If we invoke God without Torah we engage in an act of futility. If we invoke Torah as proof of our particularist and exclusivist claims, we engage in blasphemy.
Rashi offers a fascinating gloss to the first verse in Genesis: why begin with creation, why not “This month will be to you,” the first mitzvah. Because, Rashi says, it is imperative that God let readers of Torah know that He created the world and will give His portion (i.e., the Land of Israel) to whomever he chooses. If the nations of the world say “You are thieves in conquering the land from its inhabitants,” Israel can respond, “The whole world is God’s. He can give it to who He wants and can take it from whom he wants.” This has often been used as “proof” that the entirely of the land of Israel belongs to the Jews. Now even Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman have sided with this reading of Rashi. But I have another reading. In Levinas’ view God is pro-active as creator in creation but subsequently a silent partner afterward. His presence is on account of bringing Torah to light through the face of the other. When we treat the other as our responsibility, God appears, not as a result of that act but in that very act. I agree with Rashi that God, as creator, can give it to anyone who embodies the values of Torah. And he will take it away from anyone who doesn’t. That can just as easily be a sign of privilege as a sign of doom. The land is ours only to the extent that we embody Torah. And embodying Torah requires us to be responsible for the other, all others, in our midst, in the land where we are sovereign. To truly own the land is to share it. That, for Levinas, is Torah.

We are generally a moral people. We stand on Yom Kippur and ask for atonement from God, but we ask for forgiveness through our relations with the “others” in our life. We can readily admit wrongdoing; we can reflect on our behavior, we can face up to our responsibilities. These honest confessions require courage on our part. Why then, do we find it so hard to translate that to the collective? Why do we defend the indefensible in ways we would never do as individuals? Why are we so courageous as individuals and so weak as a people.

In an op-ed essay in Haaretz, Israeli journalist Gideon levy wrote on September 21st that we are becoming Pharaoh and the Palestinians are becoming the new Jews. This hyperbolic overstatement may sound shrill but the point is well-taken. And he is not the first Jew to say it. The Orthodox Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz said it in 1968. But I am not convinced. I do not want to be convinced. I look around here and I don’t see any Pharaohs. I see caring people, compassionate people, people who really want to make the world a better place, people who recognize injustice and fight to uproot it. So tell me, what happens? Why the disconnect?

I speak today as a guilty bystander, a deeply confused bystander. I succumb to the same weaknesses as all of you. And it is for this reason Levinas’ words resonate for me this year. There is no particular that is not also a universal. God is not embedded in Torah, God is disclosed in the relation that takes place through Torah. For the Jew, there is no God without Torah. And there is no Torah without the face of the other. There is no Torah without responsibility toward the other. There is no other that does not present me with the opportunity to reveal God in my reaching out to them. These days I feel that the God who commands, the God who demands, the God who punishes, the God who defends, that God does little for human beings other than justify our egregious acts to the other who stands before me and bolsters self-serving beliefs about us versus them. The God who forgives does nothing for me other than tell me that I should forgive. The God who atones does nothing for me other than telling me people deserve the right to start over. Religion can be a beautiful thing as long as God stays behind the curtain. According to Levinas that is where He wants to be. He wants us to be human, something we seem to be able to do as individuals but seem unable to do as collectives. I do not know why that is so but unless we figure that out I am afraid dark days lay ahead. Yom Kippur is known in a popular tradition as Die Weisen Tag – The Great White Day. May we take it with us and dispel the darkness on the road that lies ahead. To squander a gift is a terrible thing. To misuse a gift is a tragedy.

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