Shanah Tovah! We are here tonight, on this Erev Rosh Hashanah, for a common purpose. We have a task at hand. We understand that no two moments are alike and that this particular moment, is exceptionally powerful. It is both a conclusion and a beginning; It is the starting block of the spiritual journey of the Days of Awe, and it is a moment when we recognize the fleeting nature of time, and express gratitude for the privilege of being present with our community for another New Year celebration. And yes, we have a charge laid out before us.
As we herald in the new year, we prepare to stand up before God and humanity, contemplate our actions, and admit to ourselves, to our community, and to Adonai that we have transgressed, that we are not perfect, that we can do better. Tradition tells us, that we are here tonight to engage with the holiness of God. For some, this encounter with the Divine is powerful and rich. For others who are present, the idea of God is uncomfortable and isolating. There are many reasons why one might come to High Holy Day services. For some it is God and for others… God plays no role. This really speaks to the multi-faceted configuration of the Jewish community and helps us to expand our idea of what is holy about the High Holy Days… what is sacred? It causes us to question the role God plays in our belief systems. And so tonight, of all nights, we ask, Is it possible for our Jewish lives to be void of Divinity? Can we be Jews and not believe in God?
Judaism is widely viewed as a religion that does not present dogma. That is to say, Judaism does not have a set of beliefs that one must buy into in order to call themselves Jewish. Whereas, The Christian church preaches the dogma of the Trinity of Father, Son and holy spirit… there is no Jewish dogma that we must believe in order to identify as a Jew. Therefore, the Jewish community has vastly different conceptions of God and the order of the universe. Now, of course, there is major exception. Judaism is built on the foundation of monotheism – the belief that there is only one God. The Shema, the quintessential prayer of the Jewish people, makes the claim that Adonai is OUR God and that our God is oneness. However, it does not necessarily throw out the opinions people who simply cannot accept this idea of God.
The truth is, there are many Jewish people who do not consider themselves believers… and that is a fact that we all should respect and understand. Furthermore, Jews who do not believe in God can feel very isolated, especially during the High Holy Days. I imagine that it must be incredibly difficult to read through our Machzor and find God being sanctified, praised and thanked on just about every page! It brings us to another challenge. Certainly one can be Jewish and not believe in God, but can one engage in the texts of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur …Can a Jew pray if they don’t believe in God? We have to begin with the question, what is a prayer?
In 1972, just a few weeks before his death, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sat down with NBC reporter, Karl Stern, and recorded a famous TV interview. Near the beginning of their conversation, Stern asked Heschel a series of questions about the relationship between God and Humanity. By this time, Heschel was already a world-renowned giant in the realms of inter-faith relations, social activism and Jewish thought. Stern probed Heschel’s mind on the role of God in our world, stating; “Ten days before Martin Luther King Jr was killed, you, as a good friend of his, addressed a convention of the Rabbinic Assembly stating ‘Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken us.’ And then, just a few days later, he was killed in the most cruel and purposeless fashion… It is that sort of situation that challenges faith… how do we explain this?”
Heschel responded that, first and foremost, God deeply cares about humanity. So much so, that God has given us ultimate freedom, the gift of free will. He states it is a VERY questionable gift and the most outstanding gift we have. Free will is the reason why bad things happen to good people… because God has given us the ability to act however we see fit, and humanity has the capacity to do unspeakable evil. Heschel cites the story of Cain and Able, “When the first son, of the first couple, decided to murder his brother… he did what he pleased and God did not interfere.” It causes us to ask perhaps one of the most challenging questions in the field of Jewish thought… If God is not going to intervene if God is not going to interfere with the state of the world if God is not going to directly help us… Why should we believe? Why should we pray to God? What are we doing here tonight?
Heschel has an answer for us, “First of all,” He says, “Let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests, the primary purpose is to praise, to SING, to chant… Because the essence of prayer is a song, and humanity cannot live without song! Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved!” (pause) “Prayer might not save us, but prayer makes us worthy of being saved!”
So what is a prayer? It is an experience. Participating in a service should not be like attending a theatrical performance. Praying is more like being one of the active players in the show! Prayer is an emotion, wrapped in obligation and tempered by song. A Jewish prayer is a crossroad, which allows us to wrestle with the clash between our modern values and beliefs and the ideals of our tradition and ancestral heritage. During the Days of Awe, our prayers call on us to cry out in anguish, to celebrate and experience joy, to repent, to atone and to experience life. It is a communal experience, and it is deeply personal.
Yet, we still have to ask, Is this act of praying for our benefit or is it for the benefit of God? Does an all-powerful divine being truly need us to stand up together and sing words in an ancient poetic language? The Torah never commands us to pray! It tells us a good many other things that we are obligated to do… but it never tells us “pray”. We understand that the experience of praying is a human construction, which benefits the person who is praying. As Heschel explains, prayer does not necessarily cause God to interact with us, but perhaps, it makes us worthy of being in that covenantal relationship. So we ask again, do we need to believe in God in order to pray?
Let’s take a look at a collection of prayers that we all know and are familiar with, the Amidah. The Amidah is an organization of 18 prayers which are split into three sections; the first section of prayers praise God, the next section petitions Adonai and asks God for certain deliverances, and the concluding prayers of the Amidah give thanks to God. That is Praise, Petition, and Thanksgiving. So, is it possible, for a Jew who does not believe in God, to engage with this prayer? Certainly! Perhaps not necessarily in the traditional sense, but without a doubt, prayer is possible.
Rather than praising God for the wonderments of the world… we can still be amazed by our world. We can take those prayerful moments to recognize the things in our life that bring us awe. We can attempt to engage with and be informed by our long and miraculous history. We can derive strength from the beauty of the world, the shared sacred space of all of humanity. Anyone who has ever seen a sunset over the harbour front or, for the first time, hears the laughter of their child or grandchild, understands that the magnificence of the world can touch our lives.
Next, we have prayers that petition God… but rather than asking God for something, we can ask ourselves… “What do I need to do in order make what I want a reality.” Now this works quite simply if we are praying for petty petitions. “Please God… let me pass this test”, easily translates to, “I really want to pass this test, what do I need to do in order to accomplish that.” Where this prayer becomes more challenging is when we are praying for healing, peace, and understanding. With the belief in God, one is able to pray “God, please bring an end to hunger” and then, moved by their prayer, they may be inspired to donate or volunteer. Whereas a Jew who does not believe in God might pray “How can I end the hunger epidemic? What can I contribute?” and then, find themselves volunteering side by side with their prayerful counterpart.
The Jew who does not believe in God is not petitioning a higher power so that something will be given to them, but through prayer, they are petitioning a higher level of their own consciousness to bring about the change they want to see in the world. God can be an agent of progress… and so can we.
In the third and final section of the Amidah, we traditionally offer our thanks to God. However, one need not believe in God to be thankful. Even in today’s world, filled with hate, violence, and injustice… we still have a lot to be thankful for. May we all take a moment and recognize our privileges and freedoms.
Speaking personally for a moment, I deeply believe in God and yet, I often pray in this more introspective manner, without God-language, because I find it to be incredibly moving. I also find great importance and meaning in praying with my community. I personally believe that God is with us in this glorious space, but we are not here tonight for that connection alone. We come to shul on Rosh Hashanah so we can connect with God, yes… but we also come for our community; for those holy moments of connection before, during and after the service.
There is an old Jewish joke that envisions two elderly gentlemen, Schwartz and Cohen, leaving synagogue. Cohen is accosted by his teenage son, who wonders why his father, an atheist, attends services so regularly. His son asks, “Dad, why do you go to pray? Can you really say that you go to shul to talk to God?” And Cohen answers his son: “No, I don’t come to talk to God… but Schwartz here does, so I come to talk to Schwartz.” There are so many of us who do not find the divinity and spirituality in prayer, and so we come to talk to Schwartz… and that is absolutely okay! (slowly) No matter what role God plays in your belief system, you are more than welcome at Holy Blossom and we hope you will come to talk to Schwartz more often!
There is a Talmudic saying – Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed “Know before Whom You Stand”. Tonight, millions of Jewish people all over the globe will see this reminder on walls of sanctuaries, over arks, or on the front of bimah podiums while sitting in synagogue. Of course, the phrase intends to remind us to keep in mind that we stand before God while we pray. Though, I would like to push this traditional understanding just a bit… Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed – Know before whom you stand… You are standing amongst each other. The person you are sitting next to… the people in the row in front of you and behind you… these services do not happen without our community. Perhaps we all have different conceptions of God, but that need not be a barrier. Everyone comes to Rosh Hashannah and participates through a unique lens. It is equally as important for us to engage with the prayers as it is to engage with one another.
We are a diverse and vibrant Jewish community. We are a group of people who believe in God, who reject the idea of God and who are just not really sure what to make of this yet. We understand that not all Jews pray in the same way and not all Jews believe in the same way. Whether or not you believe in God, there is space for you in Judaism, there is room for you in prayer, and there is home for you here at Holy Blossom Temple. Thank you for bringing your voices to our prayers tonight and for making our community stronger.
May you have a Good and Sweet New Year, filled with health, happiness and connection! – Shanah Tovah U’Metukah!