On Friday night I shared with you some ideas about our community. I shared that during this Rosh Hashana, we celebrate the day that 5 families got together here in Arlington to start this community. Today, we celebrate that 80 years ago, 66 Jews from Arlington attended a High Holiday service.
Yesterday morning I shared with you that diversity is good and that Peace, Justice and Freedom are central Jewish values. We talked about the challenge to successfully translate our values into BEHAVIOR, as we make choices in all aspects of our lives.
Being Jewish is a way to be in this world. An integrated Jewish way of walking in the world is the merge of spirituality and holiness that feeds the soul, making this world more just and equal, taking care of our humanity, for we were all created in the divine image.
As we are exploring Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s three B’s: BELIEVING - BEHAVING - BELONGING.
Today I want to share some ideas about our beliefs.
In Kaplan’s understanding, traditional religion starts from a place of BELIEVING and goes to a place of BEHAVING until one can actually BELONG to that community, to that people.
But his innovation is to understand that, at least for modern Jews, this process actually works in the reverse order.
So let’s talk about God.
Do you know God? I mean, do you really know God?
I have been struggling with this question for a long time. How can I know God? How can I even be certain that God exists? I don’t know if God exists. If God exists, which I think God does, I don’t know exactly what God is.
And this is not a problem for me.
Even though I am humble before our existence and all the mysteries that come with it, it is our role to play with these ideas in order to find meaning in life.
I believe in God for I decided to have faith in the God-idea as a way to enrich my life with meaning, and structure.
The belief I have in this God-idea implies many things about what God is and mostly, what God isn’t for me.
God is neither human nor physical. Does not have supernatural powers. God cannot change the course of nature. God cannot be seen but - can be experienced.
For God is the potential power of creation that is manifested through all the natural rules that were initially created with the world.
Creation is a continuous process, it happens every day, every moment and everywhere.
The partnership on creation and development of the world between humans and God is holy and precious. This partnership creates a sense of responsibility for every action. Every human action impact nature, every human action is a partnership between human and divine.
To experience God’s presence is a choice as I walk in this world. To experience God, I need to be aware of God.
In that sense, God is a continuous process that happens, with or without human awareness. Although without awareness, what is divine will be seen as mundane, ordinary, and God will cease to exist in human experience. God does not need human acknowledgement to exist in Godself, but God needs human awareness to be in relationship with humanity and achieve the potential that exists in this partnership.
Although we cannot know God in a complete way, we can know God through God’s attributes. We can see what is Godly in the world. For when we understand ourselves as being created in God’s image, we see ourselves with the potential to be Godly, to behave according to God’s attributes, incorporating them into our practices.
In that sense, God is also the source of justice and love. To be created in God’s image means to be created with the sense of justice and the power to love. Humans can approach God through justice and love. Humans are able to feel and understand God when they act with justice in the world and when they love other humans as themselves and as being created in the image of God.
Since God is also justice and love, God’s manifestation occurs also through humans, loving and doing justice in the world.
As Rabbi Louis Finkelstein taught: “When I pray, I speak to God; When I study Torah, God speaks to Me”. I believe in each word of this phrase. God doesn’t speak with humans through words.
Prophecy for me, is a revelation of a new understanding that can happen through a mystical experience or not, but always associated with learning and understanding the ways of the world. When the Talmud states that “Talmud Torah keneged kulam” (Shabbat 127a) – Studying Torah is equal to all the other commandments together - I understand that Torah learning makes ourselves wise and it leads us to understanding God’s attributes and God’s will; the result of it is to be holy.
But not everything is necessarily in the Torah. All sciences are also a key skill to understand God. Understand science means understand the rules of nature and how to relate with them. This understanding is part of our development as partners in the creation. Once science doesn’t explain all phenomena in the world yet, and maybe never will, part of our understanding of God’s creation comes through religion and philosophy, through personal experiences that create meaning in our lives.
Being aware of God is my way to develop meaning in my life.
The way I practice being aware of God is through Judaism.
God did not create religion, but the elements and processes in the world that allowed humans to develop religions, is divine.
Religion is a methodology for creating awareness and knowledge of God.
In leaving a religious life, I am offered the opportunity of meaning making as constant process of being. The structure given by a religious practice, the conception of being constantly in a covenant, and the acceptance of a halachic system that has rights and obligation is the structure that helps me develop my awareness of God.
My personal experience comes to ground me in my reality and to make it part of my being in an authentic way. Without relating my beliefs to my personal experiences those beliefs would be just fantasies that would not necessarily have any connection with my life.
I don’t want to assume only my understanding of God as true or valid for the idea we are exploring today together.
I want to share with you exactly the opposite. Knowing God is a never-ending effort of the Jewish People and no theory can be offered exclusively.
This claim is not new in our tradition. We have a longstanding tradition of Rabbis questioning all the truths they know regarding God, for is impossible to us, humans, grasp any God-idea in its fullness only from our own perspective.
Here is my favorite example of a rabbinic discussion, trying to understand God (Sotah 14a):
Rabbi Chama, son of Rabbi Chanina, said: What is the meaning of the verse: “After Adonai your God shall you walk” (Deuteronomy 13:5)?
Isn’t it impossible for a person to walk after the Divine Presence? For the Torah also says: “Adonai your God is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), and one cannot approach fire!
Rather, the meaning of walking after the Divine Presence is that one should follow God’s attributes.
Just as God clothes the naked, referring to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked.
Just as God visits the sick, referring to God visiting Abraham following his circumcision (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick.
Just as God consoles mourners, referring to God’s blessing to Itzhak, after Avraham’s death (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners.
Just as God buried the dead, referring to Moshe (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.
Just like Rabbi Chama bar Chanina, I invite you today to open our holy texts and look for God’s attributes in them.
Our liturgy is filled with God attributes. We refer to God as ‘rofeh cholim’ – the one who heals the sick; ‘ohev tzadikim’ – the one who loves the righteous; ‘chonen hada’at’ – the one who bestows (gives) knowledge.
Torah study roots me in Jewish tradition and heritage, contemplating its wisdom and guidance, I can align my beliefs, with my thoughts and actions.
I see my life enriched in seeing life potential in God.
God as the source of all creation and as the power that enables a continuous infinite creation. The realm of possibilities becomes richer in partnering with God, widening our potential to succeed in life.
I think that is important to start talking about a relational God that is ever present waiting for our awareness in order to be in relationship with us.
Avraham is not the first human being with whom Adonai, our God, spoke to, but the first one who developed this awareness and understanding of God that allowed him to be in relationship.
God is always present, it is our task to experience God’s presence, enriching our life with meaning and structure.
May we find the divine paths to walk with God, as we enter in this relationship with the unknown.
May we be blessed in this New Year with opportunities to see the different aspects and attributes of the Divine Presence.
May we merit to increase God’s presence in the world through the divine attributes we manifest.
Shana Tova uMetuka
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