5768 Rosh Hoshanah Sermon
The End of Faith?
by Jim Levinson, BAJC Sh'liach Tzibur
Here we are together again at this holy season of the year, gathering as Jews all over the world are gathering for prayer, for inner reflection and for discernment as our collective Days of Awe begin. Some of us gathering here tonight are drawn here because this congregation is a Beit T’filah, a House of Prayer, some because it also is a Beit Midrash, a House of Learning, some because it also is a Beit K’nesset, a House of Assembly, a gathering of community, and some because it also is a Beit Tzedek, a House of Justice.
Some of us gathered in these spaces believe devoutly in God, and some don’t believe in God at all. And still, we’re all Jews.
But this distinction between believing and not believing is interesting….
The religion-related group which has figured most prominently in the Book Review sections of our newspapers of late – has been, not Jews, not Christians, not Muslims, but atheists. There has been a plethora of books published in the last two years by Sam Harris, David Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others with such titles as The End of Faith, Breaking the Faith, The God Delusion, and, ready for this? – God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
The case these books have been making is no surprise to any of us: Religions, we’re told, have triggered bigotry, hatred and war, religions have exacerbated ethnic conflict, horrific practices like female genital mutilation have been justified (erroneously, it’s worth noting) on religious grounds, and religion runs counter to science.
At least some of these authors would be delighted to see us end our High Holiday services right now and have us to return to more rational pursuits.
I’m afraid we’re going to disappoint them. But let’s take some time to examine the case they are making, and to consider atheism more generally. I find it interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, atheism is growing more rapidly at present than any Western religious denomination. For another, it’s much younger. Judaism and Hinduism are about 4000 years old. Large-scale atheism is only about 200 years old. Before the French Revolution and the so-called Age of Enlightenment, there were barely any people who did not believe in a god of some kind – and still fewer who were willing to talk about their non-belief.
So why should we, as American Jews be interested in this phenomenon of atheism? Well three interrelated reasons, I think.
First, some of this growth in atheism is coming at our expense, so we better know something about this group.
Secondly, the entire history of Judaism and particularly of the Jewish diaspora is filled with experiences of our influencing others, and others influencing our lives and practices. With an increasing population of atheists in our midst, let’s know something about those whom we’re rubbing up against.
But third, and I think most important on these High Holidays, the challenge of this atheism and of the often compelling ideas presented in these books provide us with a most useful opportunity to examine our faith and the connection, the identification we have with our faith and with our heritage – surely one of the most valuable things we can be doing during these Days of Awe. What, after all, is this religious faith we’re holding on to? What would be the effect on our lives if we dropped it? What would life be like if there were no rituals to mark the births, the coming of age, the marriages, the deaths of our loved ones? What would life be like if our religious heritage was no longer a part of our lives?
Let me say right at the outset, lest anybody get too worried: If you’re in this room, if you care enough about Judaism as cultural heritage or as spiritual base to be with us this evening, you are one of us. I have often said that if Judaism ever defined out the large number of Jews who questioned or outright denied the existence of God, we’d be so much poorer a people for it. Don’t worry, Friends, God can take it. And, as I’ve also said to you in this space, If you care enough about your Judaism to attend services on High Holidays, or to participate in Jewish life cycle events, and you contribute to our people’s primary mission of tikkun olam, of healing the world, by works of rachmones and tzedakah, work that is compassionate, work that serves the cause of justice, then you are not only Jews, but you are practicing Jews.
Let’s then talk briefly about these books which have been attacking religion; books which, in fairness, deserve to be taken seriously and to be discussed and debated openly by all of us, maybe particularly by the most religious among us. Perhaps the emergence of all these books within such a short time span is meant to serve us with a wake-up call, a call to look seriously at the way a growing number of people are viewing religions today. So let’s examine their basic arguments one by one.
The authors are, in fact, making two sets of attacks; one on a belief in God, the other on religion more generally. Let’s talk first about their attacks on a belief in God, then about their commentaries on religion-based violence and about science, and finally about faith communities themselves.
First about the God thing. As I read the anti-religion books, I was struck by the fact that the God-belief being attacked by these authors is pretty stereotyped and one-dimensional – mostly they are attacks on people following blindly what is assumed to be the dictates of a supreme potentate in the sky. I’m not one to stand in judgment of that kind of faith unless its exclusivity alienates one group from another. But my sense is that the beliefs of most of us here this evening who do subscribe to some type of faith, are a lot more interesting than that.
My survey of our congregation last year found that many of us don’t, in fact, have a sky-centered vision of God at all. For many, God is a spirit or life force in the world that lives within us and outside of us, harkening back, perhaps, to our ancient belief that after God created the universe, God made the universe part of God. For many, faith merges into a spirituality that can be found in nature as easily as in sanctuaries. Even Sam Harris, one of the authors battering religion, acknowledges the importance of spiritual experiences. And finally, rather than submitting meekly to a stern and judgmental divine being, many of us think of ourselves as partners of a loving God in completing the work of creation, particularly with respect to protecting the earth, and eradicating hunger and disease. And, being the people of Israel, a word which itself means “wrestling with the divine,” we don’t hesitate to do so – and again, God can take it.
Put another way, most of us would have trouble agreeing unequivocally with statements such as “God feeds the hungry,” “God cares for the sick,” or “God protects the innocent.” But most of us could agree heartily that feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and protecting the innocent are holy endeavors. Once we remove God as a noun and as a sole actor, and focus rather on the godliness of these acts in which we serve as partners of God, the personal struggle of belief become much less of a struggle.
What about the claims in these books that most violence in the world stems from religion? If we look at the conflicts of the 20th century resulting in the greatest number of deaths: the World Wars, the Armenian genocide, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Stalinist purges, and wars in the Congo, Sudan, Mozambique, Rwanda, Nigeria and Bangladesh, we find some miserable and absolutist powers at work, but usually not religion, per se. In fact some of the worst of this violence carried out by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot was anti-religious in nature. Even the dreadfully misguided Jihadists have a long way to go to match these folks. One can argue that the dichotomy often created between cruel religious fanaticism on the one side (the “them”) and rational, secular groups on the other (the “us”) is a false dichotomy – yet one widely touted by policy makers who would have us believe that theviolence of those people is religious, while our violence is peace promoting and rational – even when we have to bomb them into a higher rationality.
And an additional note on the present Iraq war. While 87% of white evangelicals in this country supported the war, and while, indeed, one of them acknowledged that God told him to start that war, almost every non-evangelical religious organization in America opposed the war.
And yet…we cannot deny that there is religious-based violence in the world - violence often perpetrated by religious fundamentalists whom these books rightly attack for their often vicious exclusivity. We are, of course, painfully aware of the dreadful carnage based on religious hatreds during the India Pakistan partition and in the Middle East. Does this argue that we ought to abandon religion? I would hope not. Indeed, for every abuse of religion, for every Pope Pius XII who aids and abets Nazism, there has been a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, French Hugonouts and Jewish Partisans to oppose it; for every Jerry Falwell who preaches intolerance, there is an Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Dorothy Day and a Martin Luther King to offer us the alternative of healthy non-violent change. Here in Brattleboro Vermont, we are continuing to promote that other kind of religious activism, embodied by the efforts of our Brattleboro Interfaith Initiative – that which facilitates understanding among the religious faiths, that which works for justice to undercut the violence at its source. When we as Jews embrace that kind of activism, we are embracing nothing less than tikkun olam, our great and historic responsibility to heal the world.
Let’s talk for a moment about the scientific arguments put forth by these authors. I frankly have never been able to engage in serious discussion about scientific proof of the existence of God, or even scientific proof of the value of prayer. It seems to me, however, that the anti-religion authors make the facile assumption that we’re either rational beings or we’re superstitious bumpsters. Once again, I think we’re more interesting than that. Most of us are indeed rational beings, and we make rational choices countless times each day. But there’s another part of us that wants to put rationality aside from time to time, that wants simply to sink into the universe, that wants simply to sink into a sunset or a symphony or a poem or the sacredness of a relationship. And when we lose a loved one, we don’t wish to employ our rational faculties which serve us so poorly at such a time, but rather keep them consciously at bay while we envisage some future time in Olam Ha Ba, the World to Come, when we shall be reunited with that loved one. The popular book Kitchen Table Wisdom puts it well when it talks about the experiences we have that are mysterious, that are unexplainable, but are ineffably wondrous. We wouldn’t want to give up those experiences for any amount of science.
And finally, what about the attacks these authors make on the faith communities themselves? Once again, I find the pictures drawn of these faith communities to be caricatures. I would challenge any of these authors, even Christopher Hitchens – the most cynical and unfeeling of them all (despite the pretty good book he wrote about the excesses of Henry Kissinger) – to visit this congregation at a service such as this one and find it, to use his words: vapid, fear mongering, superstitious, incendiary, irrelevant, offensive, vulgar, lacking in seriousness, or lacking in meaning.
I would challenge any of these authors to come to Brattleboro this evening and listen to our psalms and prayers being sung together by children, by golden agers and by all of us in between, passionately and fervently, with harmonies reaching beyond the heavens – and tell us it is lacking in meaning.
I would challenge any of these authors to have come to the first service in our new synagogue with Jackie blowing the shofar, Johnny Lee holding the 10 commandments portion of the Torah aloft, each of us naming loved ones no longer living who would be so proud of our carrying on these traditions, and a young boy speaking about his father. I would challenge these authors to tell us that day was lacking in meaning.
I would challenge any of these authors to have come to our service celebrating the 90th birthday of dear Rosalie Covens and seeing the children of our congregation gathered around her as she told stories about her Jewish youth; or of women of this congregation gathering together to cleanse and offer tahara prayers over the body of a young Jewish woman, taken from us in the prime of her life, and preparing her body for its resting place; or the women of this congregation gathering around Reb Rebecca when she first went to the Bimah; or the women gathering regularly for the Rosh Chodesh. I would challenge any of these authors to tell us these moments were lacking in meaning.
And I would challenge any of these authors to have come to our Day of Abraham commemoration a few years back and found it lacking in meaning - this at a time of fear and concern over the excesses of the Patriot Act when the Jews of this congregation made a circle around our Muslim neighbors and spoke together the words, “If they come for you, they’ll have to take us first.”
I challenge these authors, I challenge anyone to be with us at such times and not find meaning, not value a community so filled with meaning at a time in the world when community…and meaning…are often hard to find.