Do You Believe in God?

For the founding rabbi of New York's New Shul, our best answer may be "yes" and "no"

Written By Niles Goldstein

In a world roiling with suffering and violence, and amidst the death and devastation in Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the obvious (and age-old) question that comes up over and over again among those of us who live in this disturbing era is:

Where is God in the face of all this horror?

It’s a valid and powerful question, and a profound challenge to those of us who do believe in the reality of the Divine. For Jews, it is arguably at its most personal and jagged when we remember and reflect on the Holocaust.

But the Torah itself can be a trigger for this question.

A few months ago, one of you asked me a question on our blog site in response to a piece I’d written about my experience as a chaplain at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and how I’d seen a kind of spirituality, or “godliness,” in the eyes and actions of those around me at that unforgettable, apocalyptic scene.

"How is it that God, who is credited with creating everything in the universe, is only responsible for the good things in it and never the bad things? Wouldn’t he have created both the darkness and the light?

"And how is it that that same God, the genocidal killer in the Bible who burns, stabs, drowns, and slaughters so many people, is now to be seen only (and here I am quoted) in ‘acts of love and compassion?’

“It seems, to me, an irreconcilable disconnect.”

…The following was my response: “The questions you raise have been asked for centuries, so you’re in good company.

But there is no single answer to them—some thinkers have actually argued that God is as present as much in the darkness as in the light, and they have explanations as to why.

As to your second point, it all depends on how you perceive Scripture. If you view it as myth rather than literal fact, then obviously those depictions of God you note have far more to do with the human imagination than they do with God.”

What was I trying to convey through my words?

That unless or until we can move beyond, or at least struggle with, these questions in a serious, non-polemical way, we will stay mired in our own theological baggage and paralyzed as a people of faith.

The classic, mainstream answer as to how to reconcile the concept of a good God with the constant presence of evil in the world is to argue that the latter is the price we must pay for having personal autonomy, for the freedom to choose.

God did not want to create automatons, so it is up to us as to how we utilize that freedom— and, too often, we use it in barbaric and savage ways. That is not related to God, or to God’s goodness—the true blame lies with each of us.

The kabbalists had a different, mystical approach. They argued that the world contains holy “sparks,” everywhere and in everything, elements of the divine that were spread throughout the universe at the primeval moment of creation.

This “Big Bang” cosmological myth (which dates back to the 16th century) claims that what we perceive as evil is actually only evil at the surface level, that, in actuality, it is holiness in a latent state—and that it is up to us to kindle the hidden, dormant divinity that inheres within all of the terrible actions, events, and individuals that we see around us.

Neither of these answers is fully satisfactory to me, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

As Jews, we belong to a deeply dialogical tradition—questioning and intellectual exploration are embedded in our existential DNA. The Talmud, for instance, debates internally on many and varied religious and moral issues, but it doesn’t offer clear-cut, neat and clean resolution to any of them—it tolerates, even embraces, uncertainty.

Judaism is, at its core, about mixing it up with each other in the shadowy muck and mire of our collective minds, not about accepting fixed, absolute, “infallible” truths.

Yet this is an era of polarization, of black-and-white, either-or approaches to our problems and concerns.

And so, with no intellectual wiggle room, Jews as a group—especially liberal ones, like us, a theologically ambivalent demographic to begin with—have tended to favor the pole of negation when it comes to these matters, the “No” answer to God’s existence, rather than risk the rigid certitude of the “Yes” answer—which to many of us seems arrogant, almost aggressive.

What contemporary Jew in his or her right mind would have the hubris to proclaim, “I believe in God, and I hold this belief beyond any and all doubt”?

It just doesn’t feel authentic or honest—it doesn’t feel, for lack of a better word, Jewish.

And yet, we must not fall prey to the current trend in our culture on this topic—the false dichotomies of either a rigid fundamentalism or a dogmatic atheism.

Tragically, sometimes horrifically (particularly in the world of Islamic extremists), we see the fruits of the former ideology hard at work every night on television. But the latter ideology, while not as gruesome or as physically dangerous, is still disturbing, still an outgrowth of the kind of closed-mindedness that can, at times, slide toward fanaticism.

Some of the best-selling and most attention-grabbing “religion” books in recent years have been mercilessly devoted to attacking and trying to debunk any grounds whatsoever for believing in a higher power—books such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great.

For them, belief in God is treated as either primitive or completely idiotic.

The dismissive attitudes and vitriolic emotions within the pages of these books are palpable and relentless, and they say far more about the authors’ personalities than they do about God’s existence.

Always, but especially in divisive times like these, we need to have open minds. We are all-too-aware of the closed-mindedness, and the dangers, among religious fundamentalists and extremists. But let’s be honest with ourselves—there are a lot of people out there, including a disproportionate number of Jews…who are just as dogmatic, extreme, and “fundamentalist” about their atheism. And that’s exactly what we need to break free from—this contemporary American culture of dichotomies.

Our disbelief in God is, on so many different levels, a symptom of, and a reaction to, the polarized society and zeitgeist in which we live. What we as a community must do is resist this either-or, extremist mindset—we’re just too smart to buy into such lunacy, and too experienced to accept such unbending views. We must return to, and reclaim, our uniquely Jewish culture of dialogue and debate.

Who says we have to give Yes or No responses? Let’s answer Yes and No. That’s what the sages of the Talmud frequently did—why shouldn’t we?

In my personal opinion, a kind of “skeptical theism” is our best approach to the God Question in this new and unsettling century. Nearly 100 years ago, the great Rav Kook, Palestine’s first Chief Rabbi( since the State of Israel hadn’t yet come into being) argued that, to look at the world—with all of its violence, suffering, injustice, poverty, hunger, and darkness—and not experience at least a flicker of what he termed “temporary atheism” was itself a sin, for it demonstrated a hardened and indifferent heart.

In light of the human condition, having serious doubts about God’s presence and/or existence, according to Rav Kook, is not only acceptable—it is a sign of an insightful, sensitive, empathetic, and caring soul. In other words, ambiguity, even in matters of faith, is okay.

Judaism is an old religion with strong rebel roots.

Since antiquity, our teachings and values have often run counter to the prevailing trends and ideas of the cultures we lived in or among. Our ancestors advocated justice over oppression, freedom over subservience, dialogue over dogma, and, yes, monotheism over idolatry—belief in a “non-God.”

So what is my message now…? Let’s try to recapture our countercultural, rebel foundations. Let’s aim not to please, but to provoke, to push boundaries, to reject knee-jerk, rigid, party-line ways of thinking. For me, the bottom line is this: To believe in (or seriously entertain the idea of) the reality of a living God in this overly rationalistic, narcissistic, and materialistic day and age—even a God we can wrestle with, question, and, at times, doubt—is about as bold, and revolutionary, as it gets.…

It is also our best (and perhaps last) bet for trying to construct the world of compassion, meaning, direction, and hope that so many of us today so desperately crave.

Excerpted from a sermon delivered at The New Shul on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5768 / 2007.