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Rabbi Seidel Drash Yom Kippur | Belief In | 5772 (2011)

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Belief In, Belief That
Yom Kippur - 5772 (2011)


I must begun with a shout-out to Daniel Shechtman, the latest Nobel Prize winner from Israel! I sent a note out on the listserve, with a link to a great story written about Daniel Shechtman, a story the Israeli paper Ha'aretz ran in January of this year. [(1) Haaretz]  As you may have read, the story of Professor Shechtman's discovery, and his path to the Nobel Prize is quite amazing. And, I believe, directly relevant to Yom Kippur.

It turns out that one day, in 1982, while Shechtman was looking at an alloy he had prepared in the lab, he found a striking image in his electron microscope. It was an image of what seemed like a crystal with pentagonal symmetry. But ... pentagonal symmetry was impossible, according to the accepted laws of crytallography.

As it turns out Shechtman was not the first to have seen this impossible image. At least four other researchers before him had seen it too. But they ignored what they saw, assuming that there must have been some mistake on their part. Shechtman had a hard time convincing the rest of the world that he was on to something real. He was asked, i.e. forced, to leave his research group, because he was "bringing disgrace" on the members, with his insistence on the existence of what he called quasiperiodic crystals

None other than Linus Pauling, the dean of american chemists, and the recipient of 2 Nobel Prizes, publicly mocked Shechtman. To quote from the Ha'aretz article: "There are tens of thousands of chemists in the United States, and Pauling was their star," Shechtman notes. "He would open the conferences of the American Chemical Society, and quasiperiodic crystals were always his topic. I attended one of the conferences, at Stanford. Thousands of people were there, and he attacked me. He would stand on those platforms and declare, 'Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.'

One day, he relates, his daughter came back from school and told him she had learned about Linus Pauling. "She asked me if this was the same Linus Pauling who was against me; because if so, she said, he must be right."

TI'er Bill Galston emailed me the following: "Pauling was a close family friend. Based on that experience, this story rings entirely true. Pauling was a distinguished scientist, but also a stubborn and deeply opinionated man was late in life developed some obsessions ... that proved impervious to argument and evidence. Dogmatism is the antithesis of the scientific spirit but (alas) is not foreign to scientists, even great ones."

And as Shechtman says in the Ha'aretz article "In the forefront of science there is not much difference between religion and science. People harbor beliefs. That's what happens when people believe something religiously."

Now, I bring all this up partially to applaud Daniel Shechtman and his work. As TI'er Martin Kessel, emailed me: "Danny Schechtman has been a close colleague of mine for over 30 years...Danny's perseverance in the face of the most acrimonious criticism is a model to us all both in science and in life." And this reward also reminds me of the contribution Israel and its citizens make to the world. The world may be loathe to admit it, but Israeli culture: creative, outward looking, progressive - it's a culture unique among its neighbors.

But I also bring Shechtman's story up because of this commonality of religion and science. Both religion and science have a problem with dogma, accepted truths that can hinder human progress. Science and religion both need some accepted truths. But at the same time, one can become too bound by creed. Today I want to examine dogma, and how it may be holding you back, in your spiritual journey.

 What do you believe about God? I don't know about you, but my beliefs about God change regularly. On bad days, I'm not even sure I believe in God. On better days, I do believe, though what I believe can vary widely. And then there are those rare, glorious moments of transcendence when I think I actually feel God's presence. But even having experienced such transcendent moments, I still revert back, regularly, to doubt. I'm guessing that many of you have similar belief cycles.

This belief in God I've described is rather flexible. It's more of an attitude, really, than a creed. It's an attempt to make sense of the universe, and my role in it. This attitude does result in obligations on my part, but ultimately, it's more about a relationship with God, than a dogma about God.

One of my teachers, David Hoffman, [(2) Hoffman] calls this "belief in". Belief in is not about creeds, rather it's about relationship, in this case, a relationship with God. Similarly, a scientist might have a belief in the scientific process. Hoffman juxtaposes this kind of belief, this belief in God, with what he calls "belief that". Belief that is about creeds, and dogma. Belief that is not about relationship, but rather about propositions you must believe. A religious person, just like a scientist, could stuck overmuch on creeds, rather than process.

Now you may think that Judaism has few creeds, and you would be right, up to a point. Our tradition, at least before the Middle Ages, gave the individual Jew enormous latitude when it came to theology. If a Jew wanted to believe that God oversaw every event in his life - he could find Talmudic passages that would support his belief. And if another Jew wanted to believe that random stuff happened, stuff that God didn't actually control, she could find a Talmudic text [(3) Hagigah] to support that as well. You wanted to believe that the Messiah was going to bring about vast changes to this world - fine. You wanted to believe that the only thing different about messianic times was that Israel would finally take its rightful place among the nations - again, fine. The fact is, the Talmud has no coherent theology. And that was a good thing. What was important was faithfulness: faithfulness to our people and our God; less important was any particular faith.

There were however, a few exceptions, as noted in the Mishnah of Tractate Sanhedrin. You were supposed to believe in life after death, according to the Mishnah. But even with this required belief in the afterlife, the Rabbis were not at all strict. What was your punishment for not believing in life after death? You didn't get the reward of life after death. Only fair, right? But there was no this-worldly punishment for wrong belief. Whereas bad actions - that we had plenty of this worldly punishments for - but incorrect beliefs, no. Belief in God was important, but belief that, belief that certain theological things were true, not nearly so much.

With the Middle Ages, and Rambam, things changed. Rambam, in the 12th century, developed a whole litany of required beliefs. You may know about them because these required beliefs are summarized in the Yigdal. You may want to take a look for a moment on page 250 - there are the thirteen articles of faith. [pause]

Now, I'm not against the Yigdal. But I gotta say, even on a good day, I don't believe everything that the Yigdal confidently asserts. And on a bad, cynical day a lot of this stuff doesn't move me. For example, does God reward the good and punish evildoers? I'd like to believe that. But some days, that belief is not strong in me. And can God predict the future? Why do I even need to believe that? And if I don't believe that God knows the future, does that make me a bad Jew? Rambam would say: "Yes, not only does it make you a bad Jew, you can't even call yourself a Jew!"

You can find Rambam's original 13 articles in his commentary to the Mishnah, on just that passage I noted about required belief in the afterlife. At the end of Rambam's commentary, after he delineates his 13 foundations of Jewish belief, Rambam adds the following, frightening innovation:

When all these foundations are perfectly understood and believed in by a person he enters the community of Israel and one is obligated to love and have compassion for him ... Even were he to commit every possible transgression, because of lust and because of being overpowered by the evil inclination, he will be punished according to his rebelliousness, but he has a portion of the world to come; he is one of the sinners of Israel. But if a man doubts any of these foundations, he leaves the community of Israel, ... One is required to hate him and destroy him.

Wow. With this paragraph, Rambam participated in, or perhaps even led a change in the very nature of Jewish theology. After Rambam, you had to subscribe to a system of belief that certain things were true about God. And subscribing to that system became more crucial to a Jew's identity than actually doing the mitzvot. A Jew who didn't observe the commandments - he was just a sinner. But a Jew who didn't believe - well according to the passage I just read, he wasn't even a Jew anymore. With Rambam's creed, with his 13 principles, Judaism changed. We went from belief in God, to belief that certain things were true about God. From belief in, to belief that.

Naturally, we have to wonder where this theological change came from. My teacher, David Hoffman, wonders: was it the influence of the Muslim culture of 12th century North Africa in which Rambam lived? The Islam of the time was a culture very much taken with creeds, necessary beliefs. Maybe it was unthinkable to Rambam that his Jewish tradition was less strict about belief than was Islam. Rambam may have thought, perhaps unconsciously: "Surely we are just as serious about God as they are!?" Maybe it was also a result of the Aristotelian philosophy that was penetrating Arab lands at the time. For Aristotle, cognition was paramount, not feeling. And the adoption of a creed is, ultimately, a cognitive experience. Whatever the reason, we were left with a belief test for Jews.

Now, you may be thinking: "Rabbi, why should I care about what Rambam wants me to believe? I'm not orthodox - Rambam can say what he likes, I'll just ignore it, and believe what I want to believe." I hear you, and I agree: you should not feel bound by Rambam's dogmatism. And yet, it's not so simple. Just as Rambam was influenced by his surroundings, and not always for the good, so it is with you. You may have come, unconsciously, to equate Rambam's theology with authentic belief in God. You may have convinced yourself that you don't really believe in God, because you think that to be a true believer, you have to believe what Rambam says. You may even think, even if just subconsciously, that you're not a real Jew, because you're not ok with the 13 principles. Or because you have doubts. And that's a shame.

So that's my first point. Belief in God is important. However, with regards to belief in a set of required particulars about God - I'm telling you: don't sweat it. If you don't like the whole judgmental God thing, or the book of life thing, or the afterlife thing - by all means, ditch it. Much better you should worry about the purity of your actions, than the purity of your beliefs. In fact, belief in, as opposed to belief that, may be the more authentic Jewish approach.

I like what Victor Frankl has to say about this. You can find it on page 5 of my packet. He writes:

Speaking of God implies making being into a thing ... In other words, man cannot speak of God, but he may speak to God. He may pray.

Or to use the language I've been using: you can have a relationship with God, but you cannot know much about God.

There are big problems with religious creeds, I don't need to tell you. As soon as membership in a group becomes contingent on believing something, the whole nature of the religion starts to dry up. The first casualty is doubt. And that's a huge problem, because - well, can you really have faith without doubt? If doubt is not permitted, if we must all believe the same thing, is that belief really faith anymore, or merely expediency. Faith can only exist if you have the option not to believe. Faith, like love, must be a choice - it cannot be coerced.

Another problem with creeds: the relationship with God withers. Any experience you have of God has to conform to the creed. For example: Let's say that you believe that God gives everyone their just deserts, just like it says in the Yigdal. And then let's say something bad happens to you. You have no choice but to believe that you deserve whatever happened to you. Even just thinking that you might not have deserved what happened to you is doubt, a serious violation. With a creed hanging over your head, you can't allow yourself to reinterpret your relationship with God when new things happen - the creed will not allow it. Sort of like a scientist who cannot believe his eyes, because what he sees violates the accepted wisdom.

It reminds me a little of someone who is having trouble leaving an unsalvageable relationship. If you go into a relationship absolutely convinced that your partner is good, if that is your inviolable creed, it can take a very long time to realize your mistake, because that would mean thinking the unthinkable. Better than a creed, therefore, better than a belief that your partner is good, would be a belief in your partner. A hope for improvement. A belief in the humanity of your mate. Such a belief is a more plastic ideal, more capable of allowing you to change your understanding if circumstances warrant. You could even leave a terrible relationship, and still hold the belief in your partner, your belief they were capable of change. You might just have decided that you can't wait any longer for such a change to happen.

Our realtionship with God is not so different. Sometimes God's ways make no sense to us. What can keep us going is a belief that God cares, despite everything. We can hope for an ultimate understanding, even as we acknowledge that at the moment, we are baffled. But we don't have to constantly convince ourselves that God is good or fair in any simple way. A belief in leaves us open to reinterpret our beliefs, based on new information. A belief that forces us, at times, to ignore reality.

Here's another example. Let's apply this bifurcation - belief in vs. belief that - to ourselves. What does it mean to believe in oneself? I'd say that belief in oneself is a sort of background optimism, a low level thrum of hope that helps us get through life, that give us a modicum of confidence that we can better ourselves. It might include a sense that our lives have a purpose, though it wouldn't go so far as to be completely confident of what that purpose was. Such a belief in ourselves is, I think, necessary for living a good and a happy life. I think every human being needs such a belief.

Compare that healthy belief to a belief that - belief that, for example we are basically good people, that we're kind, generous, good-natured - this makes me uneasy. What does it even mean to believe that you're a good person? A good person compared to whom? Compared to unpleasant people? If all you think is that you're good compared to mean folks, why take pride in that?

So what does it mean to believe you're a good person?? Do you think you are good compared to what you could be? But what does that mean?? Everyone is better than they could be. We all could be worse. But we all could be better, as well. None of us is as good as we could be. And there's another problem with the belief that you're a good person. With such a belief, you've got an easy time today, don't you? If your personal creed is such that you're already basically good, how will you hear the inner voice that suggests improvements? Whereas, if you merely believe in yourself, if you belief is that you could be better than you are, you are much more likely to be alert for that inner voice, you'll more likely pay attention, you'll more likely catch a moment of insight into who you are and how you could improve.

Don't get me wrong. I am not not not advocating you think you are a bad person. There's a creed bound to lead you into trouble. At best, lifelong depression; at worst, a life of crime. Better a little optimism, a belief in yourself, in the power you have to change yourself for the better. You're not good. You're not bad. You are the possibility of improvement, embodied. You are a creature of God, made in God's image - valuable, creative, able to love, able to learn knew things about the world, able to be open to insight about yourself. Believe in yourself, have confidence in the possibility of your goodness, but not in the fact of it.

Maybe that's a little harsh. We all know the feeling of having done a mitzvah, and we have every right to feel good when we've done a good thing. That's one of God's great gifts to us - the fact that we feel good when we've done good. I don't want to undercut that feeling we get when we've done a good thing. But no-one should rest on past good deeds. And everyone does some good deeds - even Meyer Lansky loved his mother. But today is about next year. God is always asking us the question: "What have you done for me lately? And what are your plans for the coming year? Yes, you did some good stuff last year. But now what?"

Here's another example of the dangers of set beliefs. Belief in your community. Take Tifereth Israel, for example. Do you believe that TI is a haimish community? Haimish meaning, literally, like home. I know that for many of you TI feels like home. It's warm and welcoming; coming here feels like coming home. That's nice - worthy of celebration, even. But is TI a haimish community for everyone who comes here?

I have evidence to the contrary. The people who leave TI, or are unhappy, or have made few friends here, they don't all think of us as haimish. The prospective members who stop by for a Shabbat morning service, and find that few people are willing to speak to them - they don't think so either. You may not hear about these people. But they come up to me on a regular basis, as they're leaving the shul, or deciding not to join. As a potential member recently said to me: "We're choosing between TI and another shul, but I have to tell you, Rabbi, the people were much more friendly at the other shul." And I'm not just talking about potential members. I'm talking about people who have been members for awhile. They say to me: "I guess we just never felt at home here. Nobody ever invited us for a Shabbat dinner, and we were members 10 years."

Now I am certainly not saying that every person who comes to shul is unwelcomed. I think most visitors get at least a few people coming up to them and introducing themselves. But not every visitor. And not every member. Especially if they look even just a little socially awkward.

Listen, the fact is: most every shul has a belief that they are haimish. But that belief is held by those who stay members. Of course they believe it's haimish: it is their home. Sometimes, however, a belief that your shul is already as haimish as it needs to be is evidence less of warmth, than complacency. Much better would be a belief in ourselves, as a community, a belief that we could do better, that we could be more haimish. Even a belief that we often are haimish - I'd be fine with that. But the simplistic belief that we are always haimish - that's dangerous, because then there is no longer any need for teshuvah.

 A final example: the state of Israel. As a strong Zionist myself, I have some dogma. I believe that the state of Israel should be both Jewish and democratic. That's my creed. That's it. But I also have a belief in, a belief in the state. By that I mean, well, the same sorts of things I've mentioned in reference to believing in ourselves as individuals, or believing in our Tifereth Israel Community. I mean, for example, believing that Israel has amazing potential - for Jews, for Arabs, for the entire Middle East, even for the world. I believe Israel can be, and often has been, a light unto the nations. But my creed - the things I won't bend on - that's a very short list: Jewish, democratic.

For me, anyway, believing in Israel is a little like believing in God, a little like believing in myself - I can't know the full truth about what's going on with God, with Israel, even with myself. I try to learn more, I care deeply about what's going on, I don't hesitate to form opinions. And I try to act on my opinions. But ultimately, the crucial issue for me as a Jew in the Diaspora, is that I care about Israel, that I have a deep relationship with Israel, that I work at learning more and, not least, that I am an intelligent advocate for Israel. Less important, to my mind, is whether I'm a right winger or a left winger.

I suggest you avoid many beliefs about Israel. I'm not suggesting you have no opinions - of course you're going to have opinions. Maybe even well-informed opinions. But beliefs, assertions that certain things are immutably true - that is a mistake, especially if you know little or nothing about Israel first hand. Is Israel being good or bad to the Palestinians? Are the settlements a threat to peace, or an incentive to bring the Palestinians to the table? Are the left-wingers deluded, or are the right wingers deluded? Why have an immutable belief about these things, when the answers will probably change with developments? Listen to what the experts have to say. But avoid immutable beliefs on the particulars.

The person who has fixed beliefs about Israel always makes me a little dubious. Given that the experts are unsure of what is going to work, how can we armchair American Jews, who know no Arabic, and very little modern Hebrew, be so certain of what's best? And that's not even mentioning the issue of how offensive it looks for a comfortable American Jew to make confident pronouncements that affect Israeli security, when he takes no personal risks if his pronouncements turn out to be misguided. This is as true for those on the right as it is for those on the left. There is no safe course of action for Israel - both the proposals of the left and the right are risky. In such a situation, sometimes it's best not to be too sure of ourselves. Best to remain open and curious.

I believe that Israel must always remain a Jewish Homeland. But I don't have any set belief in exactly how that must be ensured. I just know that I have to do what I can to ensure Israel's health, I have to do my best to make sure that Israel can live up to the highest standards.

By the way, one way to help Israel is buy Israel bonds. Doesn't matter whether you are a left-winger, a right-winger, or, like myself, a little bit of both. Buying bonds is a statement that you are in the relationship, a statement that you have faith in Israel. It's not a statement about any particular cause, or program, or political position. Buying Bonds is about declaring solidarity, not approval or disapproval.

Which is not to say you shouldn't also be giving money to your favorite Israeli causes on the right or the left. Absolutely, support the funds of your choice, the groups that reflect your opinions about what's best for Israel. But in addition, buy bonds. Make the statement that you are here for Israel, whatever happens. You are family - if you do not support Israel, who will?

In conclusion, believing in something - God, yourself, Israel - believing in something is about maintaining flexibility. It's about understanding that relationships are not static. Relationships have a present state, a current reality, but they also have possibilities, potential. It is to that potential that we must remain loyal. Mere loyalty to a creed is a less flexible stance. A creed implies that there are many things that don't change. Which is true up to a point. But complex things, things we can never fully grasp - like the meaning of our lives, our relationships, especially our relationship with God - these complex things are ever-changing, and thus not well suited to a dogmatic approach. This year, may we consider moving away from set beliefs about complicated subjects. May we consider, rather strengthening the relationships that lie at the heart of our lives. In this way, may we remain flexible and open to the new ideas, and the new mitzvahs that the coming year will bring.


(1) Haaretz:  This article can be found at http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/magazine/clear-as-crystal-1.353504  (Ha’aretz, 1/4/2011)

(2) Hoffman: Also, many of my remarks about Rambam here come from a great class I took with him this past winter at the Rabbinic Training Institute

(3) Hagigah: Hagigah 4b-5a