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What I Believe; Rabbi Gordon's Kol Nidre Sermon

09/15/2021 08:05:51 PM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

Rabbi Sam Gordon Headshot

Last week on Rosh Hashanah, as we turned in our prayer book to Unetaneh tokef, I shared with you my own thoughts and interpretations of that very challenging prayer.

It is a prayer that imagines a supernatural God sitting before a Book of Life, deciding who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by water, who by storm, who by hunger, who by famine, who by thirst. I rejected that concept of God, that theology. I don't believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God who, like Santa Claus, keeps a list of who's been naughty and nice, determining each year who shall live and who shall die. I think I have, over the years, explained my personal conflict with that prayer.

I would define myself as a humanist, religious Jew, with a view of the Divine that is not the omnipotent, omniscient God sitting on a throne in heaven. But this year, as I thought about the God of Unetaneh tokef, it became clearer to me when I began to form my own personal philosophy and theology.

On May 16th of this year, Rabbi Richard Rubinstein died at the age of 97. In certain ways, I considered Rabbi Rubinstein to be my childhood rabbi. I grew up in a Conservative congregation in Pittsburgh, and Rabbi Rubinstein was the Hillel rabbi for the University of Pittsburgh and for Carnegie Mellon. At the time of the High Holy Days, when the sanctuary at my congregation was filled to capacity, there would be an overflow service that would take place either in the auditorium or in the social hall, and Rabbi Rubinstein was the rabbi for that service.

Now, I always went to whatever service at which he was speaking. Rubinstein was fascinating, inspiring, dynamic, exacerbating. He was polarizing and provocative. I can still remember some of his sermons and certainly his delivery.  He was charismatic and brilliant. He was most famous for a book he wrote in 1966 called After Auschwitz, and he became part of a group of theologians, largely Protestants, of the “Death of God” school. He was widely read and critiqued. He had achieved a certain degree of fame.

Indeed, in 1967, he was the subject of a Playboy magazine interview. Now, this was a wonderful occurrence for a 16-year-old boy, because I had an excuse for saying that I was just reading the magazine for its articles.

But Rubinstein was far too easily dismissed for this “Death of God” concept. He was no atheist or nonbeliever. He believed in the death of the traditional understanding of God. He believed in the death of the God of the suburban Sunday school. He believed that the traditional understanding of a God who could intervene in history and in human affairs no longer made sense after the Holocaust. He rejected a supernatural God. That was a pediatric version of God. He argued that the God of history who was omnipotent or omniscient could no longer be credible in a post-Holocaust world. This is what he wrote:

When I say we live in the time of the death of God, I mean that the thread uniting God and humanity, heaven and earth, has been broken.”

After Auschwitz, the belief in a redeeming God who is active in history and who will redeem humanity from all evil is simply no longer possible. If there is a God who is able to act, who is able to redeem, who is able to save, but who chooses not to do so, such a God would not be worthy of worshipping. After Auschwitz, it was impossible to believe in a God who had the power to save, who had the power to rescue humanity from the evil of the Nazi death camps, or even from illness or floods or hunger or thirst, but who would choose not to do so. That is the God who was dead to Rubinstein.

Rubinstein was a theological radical even though he was an observant Jew for the rest of his life. I was inspired by his rejection of the traditional concept of God. But the idea of a God who does not act in history is not a late-20th Century concept in Judaism. I soon learned through my studies at Hebrew Union College and the Hartman institute, studying Talmud, that this is a very old concept, of a God who is limited in power. In the Talmud, one of the best-known stories comes from the tractate, Bava Metzia, 59a-b. It's a story of The Oven of Akhnai.

Some of you may know it.  It is a story about rabbis getting together and creating law, halacha. They are determining what is kosher and what's not kosher; what's okay to be used, what's not okay. This oven of Akhnai was a simple stone oven made of tile, with grouting in between. As you know, when you have tile and grouting, it can get dirty. And so, the question that the rabbis were posing to themselves is: if this oven becomes unkosher, is it possible to keep using it if you can clean it? Is it possible to kosher the oven? In all honesty, this is a pretty arcane dispute. This is not world-shattering. This is not the most important issue to decide. This is basically about pots and pans. This is merely checking on utensils, and yet the rabbis make a decision. Their decision is that the oven of Akhnai is not kosher.

But one rabbi, Rabbi Eleazar says, “No, no, you're wrong! You're wrong! It can be made kosher.” They said, “Well, we have decided, and the issue is settled. The halacha, the law, is according to our joint decision." Eleazar won't accept it, so he said: “I'm right, and to prove I'm right, do you see that carob tree outside? It’s going to uproot itself and fly into the air.” Sure enough, the carob tree uproots itself and flies up in the air. We would call that either magic or a miracle, but the rabbis answer Eleazar and say, “We don't make the law according to carob trees.” 

So Eleazar says, “But I know I’m right, and to prove it, the stream of water, the channel of water outside, is going to reverse itself.” (This is long before the Army Corps of Engineers reversed the Chicago River.) That would be a miracle, too, but the rabbis say, “We don't make halachic decisions based on channels of water.” 

Eleazar is very frustrated. He says: “I'm right, and to prove it, the walls of this study hall are going to collapse in on all of us." Rabbi Joshua gets up and rebukes the walls and says, “Stay out of it! We're making a decision according to a rabbinic court!” When Rabbi Joshua says “stay out of it,” who was he talking to? He's talking to God.

Eleazar then says, “No, I'm still right. There's going to be a Bat Kol, a voice from heaven calling out and saying that I'm right.”

Remember last week, the voice from heaven that told Abraham not to sacrifice his son? Well, the voice of heaven calls out again and says the halacha is always according to Eleazar. Joshua then quotes tomorrow's Torah portion from Deuteronomy, from Nitzavim. He says: “Lo b’shmayim hi,” “It’s not in heaven.”

This silences God. The rabbis say that what goes on in our everyday life is really no concern of yours. We’re judges, we're creating law, we're not waiting for revelation, that's not our goal. Joshua put God in God's place, and thus we are taught that God cannot intervene in everyday human affairs.

This debate occurred almost 2,000 years before Richard Rubinstein. Indeed, in a larger sense, that is the whole rabbinic view of the world. It moves from a theocentric world, a God-centered world, to an anthropocentric world, a human-centered world. Rabbinic Judaism begins with the question of, “What time is it?” What time do we have to do things?

If you turn to the creation story in Genesis, we know when the day begins and when the day ends. The day begins at sunrise; it ends at sunset. That's Genesis, but that's not rabbinic Judaism, that's not the Mishnah. When does the day begin? When you wake up. Some of us wake up at sunrise, but not all of us. And when does the day end? The day ends when you drag yourself in from a late-night party, at maybe two or three in the morning but it's still considered the previous day.

Humans determine time, according to the rabbis. It's not based on divine revelation or divine intervention. That is, and I use the word carefully, “modern” Judaism. Modern being 2000 years old. God is not an active agent or presence in the world as we know it, and fires and floods, hurricanes and famine, and droughts are not acts of God. We are responsible for the world in which we live. And so that's a core of what I believe. 

I've given you many hints over the years, I think. There are a few other beliefs that I've shared with you that I thought I would just summarize here in this last Kol Nidre sermon of my rabbinate. A few years ago, I talked about the “heresy of narcissism.” To me, this is a core teaching of the Bible, particularly the Book of Exodus. God says, “I'm God; you're not.” We are not God. Idolatry, idol worship is when we make ourselves into the Divine.

Last week I talked about the God of relationships, of Martin Buber ‘s I and Thou. I believe in the God of the story of human creation. Adam-human, comes from adamah-earth, earthling from earth; human from humus. Then the breath of the divine was breathed into that earth stuff. It is what animates us, and that is how we become containers of the divine.

I believe in what's called “predicate theology,” not “Who is God?” or “What is God?” but “When is God?” God is not good or merciful or loving. Goodness is godly, mercy and love are godly.

I believe in the unseen God of wind and love, the breath of God coming out of the Burning Bush, saying that God's proper name was yud-hey-vav-hey, but not pronounced, more like the wind sound…  

That’s the theology that I understand, and that is the theology for me that connects me to a larger, more lasting, more eternal existence. All of that is the breath of the divine.

Rubinstein’s favorite metaphor was the ocean. Rubinstein said that God is the ocean, and we are the waves. In some sense, each wave has its moment in which it is indistinguishable as a somewhat separate entity, but nevertheless, no wave is entirely distinct from the ocean. The waves are surface manifestations of the ocean, even as our knowledge of the ocean is largely dependent on the way it manifests itself in the waves.

That was Rubinstein's theology. You might recognize it as an idea that was in the very popular book by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie. It’s repeated there in the narrative. As Morrie is dying, he tells the story of the wave, looking out at the shore and realizing that it is going to die when it hits the shore, and terrified at the prospect. But then the waves behind that wave say, “Don't be silly. You're not a wave, you're the ocean.”

And that's who we are. We make the most of our brief existence as separate individual waves, but we also know ultimately that we are part of a much greater whole-- the ocean. It is not an act of death but one of becoming one with God, and that is the oneness which we repeat every time we get together and pray the shema, and that is how I see my own humanity and my connection with the divine and the sacred. It is the source of feeling blessed, to be a part of something that is much larger than oneself, that lasts longer than each of our own individual lives. This, to me, defines the sacred in each encounter with each other, and it celebrates life as the greatest gift we receive from the divine.

Let us live this next year aware of that gift and grateful for that blessing. Shanah tovah.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784