This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/3/18 –
Many years ago, as a young rabbinical student, I had a job teaching in the Introduction to Judaism Program at the 92nd Street Y in New York. The class consisted mostly of couples – one person Jewish, one person not Jewish, with the non Jewish person considering conversion. One evening, at the end of class, a student – a young woman – asked me if I though it was possible to convert to Judaism without believing in God.
After pondering the question for a moment or two I said ‘Yes, I do believe it is possible to convert to Judaism without believing in God.’ Then I went on to talk with the class about Judaism’s emphasis on action – on what we do on a day to day, sometimes moment to moment basis – and its DE-emphasis on what we believe. I said to the students ‘Our tradition will often tell us what we should be doing, but it will rarely tell us what we should be thinking. And that is why,’ I concluded, ‘I think someone could convert without believing in God.’
The next evening the phone rang in our apartment. It was my supervisor for the Introduction to Judaism course. He said ‘I heard you had an interesting discussion in class last night.’ He talked the previous night’s conversation through with me, wanting to hear my perspective on what was said. Then he said two things to me. First, he said ‘you may be right, but you also may want to carefully consider when and how you say things like that in public, especially in a class full of people who are considering conversion.’ And the second thing he said was ‘you also may want to study the debate between Maimonides (the RambaM) and Nachmanides (the RambaN!) about the first of the 10 commandments.’
This debate is well known in rabbinic circles, going back to the early Middle Ages when Maimonides lived in the 12th century (1135 – 1204) and Nachmanides in the 13th (1194 – 1270). And their debate, which played out on the pages of various commentaries over the years, revolved around the first of the 10 commandments, which is? “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage.” (Exodus 20:2) Of course the problem with this verse if you read it closely is that it does not contain a commandment. And that is what Nahmanides pointed out. The verse does not say, for example, ‘believe in the Lord your God.’ The other 9 all contain specific verbs that command the listener to do something, or to not do something. Honor your father and mother! Remember the Sabbath! Don’t worship idols! Don’t steal, or commit adultery, or covet! Those are commandments, no question about it. But “I am the Lord your God” does not fit into that category. No question about that either.
Nevertheless, Maimonides, in a book he wrote called Sefer HaMitzvot – the Book of Commandments – lists belief in God as commandment number one, and the verse he cites as proof is the first verse of the 10 commandments we read this morning – ‘I am the Lord your God.’ Nachmanides argued that he was wrong, and that a true commandment must include a rule about behavior, about something you should or should not do, and that in some way a commandment should be measurable. That is to say, you should be able to know if you have fulfilled it or not. Most of Judaism works that way. You know specifically what prayers you are supposed to recited at a given service, and you either complete them or you don’t. You know you are supposed to eat matzah at the seder, and you even know how much you are supposed to eat, and then you either fulfill the commandment or you don’t. You know you are not supposed to eat certain things, and you either abide by that commandment, or you violate it. But you know whether you’ve done it or not.
Belief is something that is entirely different. People believe in different ways, they believe different things about God, their belief about God changes over time, it waxes and wanes, sometimes it is stronger, sometimes it is weaker. Sometimes it might not be there at all, and then it might come back. On top of that belief is such a personal thing – I am not sure I can even describe my belief to you. How can you regulate something like that? How can you determine whether it is being fulfilled or not, how can you measure it? And as the debate about the first commandment that began with Maimonides and Nachmanides continued to play out through the centuries, some Jewish philosophers began to argue that matters of belief should not be commanded at all. That – like I said to my group of students more than twenty years ago – being Jewish is not something that should be defined by what you think, particularly by what you believe about God, or even if you believe in God or not! Instead it should be defined by what you do.
You may know the old story about Schwartz and Greenberg, a story I’ve told before. Schwartz and Greenberg are old friends and they come to shul together every morning, and they sit together in the morning minyan. They both put on tallit and tefillin, they both know the service, follow the Hebrew, and can participate. But there is one problem. Schwartz does not believe in God. And every morning, Schwartz’s wife gives him a hard time. ‘Why do you go to shul all the time? Greenberg I can understand, Greenberg is a believer, Greenberg has faith, but you, you have no faith, so why do you go?’ And finally one day Schwartz says ‘You know, Greenberg goes to shul to talk to God, and I go to shul to talk to Greenberg.’
The truth, of course, is that we all probably have a little Schwartz in us, and we all probably have a little Greenberg as well. There may be days when we sit here with doubt in our hearts, when our faith is at a low point or maybe it is not there at all. On those days are we any less Jewish? And there may be other days when for one reason or another, probably for reasons we don’t even understand, our belief is stronger, and we are more sure that God exists and that God’s presence is a part of our lives. On those days are we more Jewish?
I can only speak for myself, and I can tell you I’ve been in shul many times feeling like Greenberg, but I’ve also been here many times feeling like – well, Schwartz. What I am grateful for either way, whether my faith that day is strong or weak, is waxing or waning, is that I am part of a tradition and community that honors that struggle, and that gives me a place to live my Jewish life with meaning every single day.