While Judaism considers trust in God a paramount religious virtue (see Genesis 15:6, Isaiah 7:9, Samuel 22:29-36, Psalm 31, and Job 2:9), the Bible does not contain a single commandment insisting that we believe in God.
There are two reasons. First, Judaism is not interested in professions of faith; its primary emphasis is on how we act: “Not study is the chief thing but action” (Pirkei Avot 1:17). Thus, from a Jewish perspective, the most significant question is not “What are we expected to believe?” but “What are we expected to do?” And so, even a Jew who’s not sure God exists is required to behave in accordance with Jewish ethical teachings.
Second, Judaism’s early emphasis—in the Bible and in the teachings of our ancient rabbis—is on honoring our covenant with God rather than speculating about the nature of God. Consider our first Hebrew ancestor, Abraham (originally known as Abram). Author Bruce Feiler explains: “‘Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him’…joining the covenant with his feet, not his words…He doesn’t believe in God; he believes God. He doesn’t ask for proof; he provides the proof.”
Still, even within the traditional framework of belief that “deed trumps creed,” Jewish philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many others have wondered about God—and shaped the ideas of countless Jews. (For exploration of different God philosophies see the Bibliography.) Today, the latest Reform rabbinic platform acknowledges the diversity of God beliefs among Reform Jews: “We affirm the reality and oneness of God even as we differ in our understanding of the Divine presence” (“A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism,” CCAR, 1999).
How can we get close to God? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob felt close enough to “hear” God and to speak to God. In the times of the Temple our ancestors brought sacrifices to the altar; the Hebrew word for those sacrifices is korban, from the root that means “near or close.” In modern times, we turn to prayer. Rabbi Milton Steinberg said, “Prayer is the bridge between man and God…Only in prayer does one establish a soul to soul interchange with him.” Tzedakah, study, and tikkun olam can bring us close as well.
Perhaps the most visceral modern struggle with faith is when one reaches out to God with all one’s heart and soul and feels bereft of a recognized response. Here, Dr. Reuven Firestone of the HUC-JIR/LA faculty encourages us to follow the teachings of the biblical prophets in developing patience and nurturing hope within: “The great biblical prophets, known for their extraordinary sensitivity to life’s trials and sufferings, teach not only the uncompromising need for social justice and compassion, but also the need for patience and hope in God.… [Listen to the prophet] Micah: ‘Yet I will look to Adonai, I will wait for the God who saves me’ [7:7]….Learning to have patience in God helps us to find the fortitude to deliver ourselves and our fellows from the evils that seem to be an inherent part of real life” ("Patience," The Chronicle, #60/2002).
It also helps to understand what we can “expect” of prayer to God. Gates of Prayer (CCAR Press) offers one explanation: “Prayer invites God to let God’s presence suffuse our spirits, to let God’s will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart and rebuild a weakened will.”
Overview Questions for Discussion
1. How does Judaism’s emphasis on action rather than belief guide your actions?
2. Do you believe in God?
3. When do you feel closest to God? Would you agree that prayer is the only way to get that close?
4. Does the prophet Micah’s call for “patience in God” speak to you? What might this virtue teach us about human interaction?
5. Read the above passage from Gates of Prayer aloud with others. Do you agree that prayer cannot achieve the kinds of physical results mentioned? What about prayer affecting soul, heart, and will?
6. How can you join the covenant with your feet?
Section IV Questions for Discussion
Participants responded to three questions (in bold below).
Do you believe in God?
1. Belief with Doubt: Many respondents first rejected God, and later formed a relationship with God—even when doubt remains about what God is like and how God “works.” Is it possible for you, too, to form a relationship with God even when doubt remains? Synagogue groups: explore how doubt might contribute to religious awareness.
2. Evolving Ideas of God: The Bible presents dramatically changing ideas about God—from anthropomorphism (Eden) to a disembodied voice (burning bush), to a presence in fire and smoke (Sinai) to a still, small voice (Elijah), among others. Similarly, Dawn Mollenkopf, Art Grand, Steve Arnold, and other respondents say their understandings of God have evolved. Pamela Rollins once believed that God is responsible for everything; so when personal tragedy struck, her belief shattered. Have your understandings of God evolved as well? What struggles influenced your beliefs? Bring friends together at home or in the synagogue to share experiences and conclusions. How can your congregation help doubters? Post ideas on the blog at www.rj.org.
For family: How do different family members define God?
3. Sources of Belief: Rollins rediscovered God when she realized that belief does not depend on rational thought. John Planer calls this a “leap of faith.” Have you ever made a leap of faith? Explain.
Dick Israel’s belief in God grows out of his understanding that creation was no accident. Do you accept his argument? How does it differ from “Creationism” or “Intelligent Design”?
Do you believe God hears our prayers?
1. Prayer Expectations: Ellen Morrow and Barbara Shuman pray to God for strength, support, and consolation. Do you?
Do you believe God hears our prayers? What do you expect from prayer? How do you react if your prayers go unanswered? Might “patience in God” help get through any disappointment you might experience with prayer?
Martin Graffman and Dick Israel believe that prayer should move people, not God, to act. They do not expect God to alter nature’s laws or to intervene in response to prayer. Do you agree? If change of circumstance is not the purpose of prayer, what is? For what do you pray?
2. Prayer—A Wider Purpose: Ellen Morrow feels strengthened and supported during communal worship, even when the “results” aren’t evident. Does praying with others in the synagogue have a purpose beyond fulfilling personal needs?
3. Prayer & Gratitude: In ancient Israel gratitude was expressed through sacrifice (Leviticus 3:1). Dick Israel expresses gratitude through prayer. Do you thank God when you pray? If not, for what might you offer thanks?
When do you most experience or feel closest to God?
1. Your Perspective: When do you feel closest to God? Which of the two responses—Barbara Shuman’s or Steve Arnold’s—comes closest to your answer?
Do you believe that, as the CCAR “Statement of Principles” says, “the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail”?
1. Partnership with God: Martin Graffman says that being God’s partner requires him to recognize evil and take responsibility to fight it. What does it mean to you to “partner with God”? Have you ever experienced such a relationship? What about when you do “small acts of kindness”?
For schools and youth groups: What simple, everyday acts can you do that constitute your being God’s partner?
2. God as Motivator: Barbara Holender speaks of God as the motivator to creativity and action. Has God/can God help you find your way to creative ideas and deeds? How? Discuss with friends and family the different paths to creativity.