My thanks to my brother in law Bob for helping me order my thoughts about this post.
First off, maybe most importantly, I wonder. I have doubts. I question. My sense of God waxes and wanes, sometimes feeling quite strong, at other times faint, like a dim echo.
Here are some things I don’t believe: the ‘Hebrew school’ God idea – a stern old man with a flowing white beard, sitting somewhere in the sky on a throne. I also don’t believe in a God that rewards and punishes, a God that keeps a checklist, watching everything we do, putting some kind of cosmic smily face near our names when we do a good deed, and some kind of red demerit mark when we falter. And yes I know that reward and punishment is classic Jewish theology, and in fact is a core tenet of the book of Deuteronomy, but I can’t accept it. I’ve seen too many good hearted folk worn down unfairly by life, and too many sour hearted people get away with living selfishly and never giving back to the world around them. There is a classic rabbinic answer to this problem, but I am not going there either (it all gets worked out in the world to come – just can’t put my eggs in that basket!). Lastly, I don’t believe that God prefers one faith tradition over another. That is to say, God does not think Jews are better than Christians or Muslims are better than Jews or Hindus are better than Buddhists. If anything, assuming that would limit God. Do we imagine God is so small that only one faith tradition would please God?
Here are some things I do believe: there is a vast and deep sense of mystery in the universe, a sense that I experience through thought, sound, sight, taste, relationships, study, prayer, music, the beauty and pain of life. Through the miracles that we see every day – from the sublime (the birth of new life) to the simple (the wind gently blowing through the trees on a summer night). Those moments call to my spirit, those experiences speak to me of something beyond me, something that can inspire us, can challenge us, can remind us that when we have failed we can do better, and that we have an incredible capacity inside of our beings for goodness, kindness, hope, love, creativity.
Judaism is one of the structures I use in my life to tap into that sense of mystery. Judaism gives me opportunities to seek that source, to reach out in wonder and gratitude, it reminds me of the importance of humility (a crucial lesson for a rabbi), and it enables me to mark sacred time. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds me that the world of the spirit, the inner world, is far more important than the world of material things.
I want to be clear about this – other faith traditions can certainly do for other people what Judaism does for me, and do it just as well. But Judaism is MY faith tradition, that has been lived by my ancestors for generations, that has been placed in front of me in my life. A great treasure chest filled with wisdom and meaning. How can I not open that chest and claim what is mine, living it in my life to the best of my ability?
And one last thing. This treasure chest doesn’t come from God. It comes from us (the human side of the coin). It is our best attempt to come to terms with what God can mean in our lives, with what God might want from us. It is a system we have created to make space for God’s presence – in our lives, and also in the world. But it is a human system. In a way that makes it even more miraculous that it works so often and so well.