“You shall have no other gods besides me.”
Biblical Judaism puts forward a complex and elusive notion of belief. From the Five Books of Moses through the prophetic texts and the writings, the people are commanded and guided to love God, to obey God, to serve God. When it comes to seeing God, to any potential verification of God’s existence or essence, things become literally cloudy, shrouded in smoke, depicted by columns of fire or mist, hidden in clefts of rock, depths, heights, or voices.
Even acknowledgment is indirectly decreed. The first commandment begins simply – “I am.” Its “you shall” is a “you shall [not] … have no other gods but me.”
What then constitutes Jewish belief in God? Is a faithful Jew one who is faith-full, filled with faith in a particular notion of the Divine? Does that automatically mean the transcendent, omnipotent Deity of many a childhood narrative? Are we as adults empowered to simply push away that paediatric portrayal with an intellectualized, postmodern gesture?
Believing, by definition, comes with doubt. The essence of belief is the experience of its absence. No doubt there. Even atheism is riddled with doubt – its very debates framed question and challenge, the mirror of faith itself.
As a former professional musician who has endeavoured to weave those skills into my rabbinate, I can “belief” experientially. I resonate with belief, rather than understand it. To simply profess “I believe in God” does not adequately reflect what leads me to religious community, to spiritually-motivated social action, or to serve as leader of a faith community.
For many, the theology of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, who co-founded the Reconstructionist movement, offers a bridge between secular and religious Judaism. Rabbi Arthur Green, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College when I began my studies there, has called Reconstructionism “religious humanism.”
Rabbi Kaplan is well known for his formulas humanizing God. “The word God has … come to be symbolically expressive of the highest ideals for which men [sic] strive.”
The character of the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella – at least in the lyrical imagination of Oscar Hammerstein – taught her doubting charge: “Impossible things keep happening every day.”
Is it possible that we must believe in the impossible before trying to do the impossible? Is it possible that faith – that belief in something that transcends the order of the world as we experience it – may successfully inspire the feeding of the world’s hungry, stop urban violence, create armies of peace, arrest climate change, and other acts of impossible scope?
Is it possible that, by resonating with belief, we create the conditions to remove discrimination and correct injustice, because we truly live as though everyone is created in the Divine image?
Belief and action need not be dismissed because they are not the other. Prayer to God may indeed be futile if the religious communities that hold such worship rituals do nothing to foster dialogue between its members, with those beyond the walls of the community, or among those who have fallen and need to be uplifted. And those whose actions need not be buoyed by prayer need may – must – join with those whose actions are spurred on by faith. In this we all can believe.
Rabbi Bolton can be reached at email@example.com.