Last year on Yom Kippur I spoke about how having a real relationship with God can change your life. Last Kol Nidre I said “If you KNOW God exists—just as surely as you know you yourself exist—if you have a relationship with God just like you have a relationship with your spouse or your best friend—your life is totally transformed.”
Two years ago today, at the first High Holiday sermon I gave at B’nai Israel I said “All of the different aspects of Judaism—whether ritual commandments like the Sabbath and prayer, or ethical commandments like giving charity or not gossiping —are part of a path to inner happiness.”
And today, two years later, I find myself wondering whether anyone was listening. Maybe I’ve made a few people think with my sermons, I know I’ve helped a few “seekers” with my classes, and I’ve even brought a few former Gentiles tachat canfei hashechinah, under the wings of the Divine Presence, welcomed them into the Jewish faith. But as a community, it seems we’re pretty much where we were two years ago, at least if attendance is any indicator: we still have nearly 600 people show up for the High Holidays, and maybe 70 or 80 for a regular Shabbat.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called “Who Needs God” which begins with a complaint that every congregational rabbi can relate to. He says “I love the religious tradition out of which I come and I love the several hundred members of the congregation I serve. The enduring frustration of my rabbinic career has been my inability to get my two loves to find and love each other.”
This is a pretty common rabbinic lament. In 1997, when I was being interviewed for admission to rabbinical school, I was asked “what do you hope to accomplish as a rabbi?” I naively replied “to create an observant Conservative community,” in other words a community where most of the people observed the Sabbath and kept kosher. One of the rabbis on the admissions committee asked “and why do you think you’ll succeed where my generation failed?”
Rabbi Kushner – a rabbi with a national reputation and several best-selling books to his credit – wrote “For almost thirty years, I have tried to show my congregants how much more fulfilled they would be if they made room for their religious tradition in their lives. I have urged them to do it, not to make God happy but to make themselves happy.”
So why have we had generations of rabbis acting like parents saying “Eat your Judaism, it’s good for you!” and generations of congregants acting like kids facing a plate of limp broccoli?
Obviously a lot of Jews don’t feel a great need for the product their rabbis are peddling. Why not?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said we shouldn’t blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the decline of religion in modern society. He wrote these words in 1955, which in hindsight seems like such a more pious time than today. Heschel said, “Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” Heschel also said “The craving for God has never subsided in the Jewish soul.”
I love Heschel. Most of you know I quote him regularly, and I’m going to quote him some more this morning. But this time I’m quoting him because I think he’s wrong. On both counts. I think for many Jews the craving for God has subsided, and that’s the reason why many Jews find religion irrelevant and dull. Rabbis, who are virtually by definition spiritual seekers, perhaps sometimes have trouble understanding that not everyone shares this spiritual hunger.
At least, not everyone is a spiritual seeker all of the time, although everyone is one some of the time. When confronted with difficult questions or situations people often turn to God and demand answers or comfort. I’ve had people who were unobservant all their lives ask me for a prayer they can say for a loved one who is ill. One of the reasons the “regulars” at synagogue are often older is because for many people what first brings them into the synagogue on a regular basis is saying kaddish for a loved one – something that, if we are lucky, first happens to us later in life. And sometimes the experience of a family member passing away produces some complicated spiritual questions. For example, I’ve had people ask whether they should say kaddish for a parent who was abusive—which is a complicated question both theologically and psychologically.
My observation that many people only turn to God in times of crisis points to one reason many Jews don’t turn to God very often. We’ve gotten pretty comfortable. A few years ago Jews passed Episcopalians to become the wealthiest religious denomination in America. But I have to wonder whether what’s good for our pocketbooks may be bad for our souls.
An economic study published by Robert Barro and Joshua Mitchell showed an interesting correlation—in general, the richer a country, the lower the church attendance. America is somewhat of a statistical anomaly, but overall, the correlation is strong enough for us to say it’s real.
And it’s logical. Think of it on an individual basis. If you’re poor, you’ve got both the time and the incentive to be pious. If life in this world is miserable, maybe if you pray hard enough it will be better in the next one. If you don’t have a job to occupy your time, or money to go to the movies, you might as well go to the church or synagogue. At least it’s got heat and air conditioning and maybe some coffee and cookies and a person with a kind word for the down-and-out.
When you make more money, maybe you don’t “need” religion as much. The Torah itself cautions us not to forget God when things are going well. In Deuteronomy Moses warns the people “Lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and lived there; And when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; Then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God.” The Torah gives us this warning because even thousands of years ago, human nature was the same – there is a tendency to forget God when things are going well.
It’s not surprising that when things are going well many people put religion on a back burner. Who needs to be focused on heaven and hell if life here on Earth is pretty good? Olam Haba, the world to come, is only a big motivator for people who are unhappy with olam hazeh, with this world. And if you have money you have a lot of other things you can do with your time. The choice isn’t just go to shul or stay home and watch “I Love Lucy” reruns on your black-and-white TV. You can travel, go shopping, eat out. In economic terms, the richer you are, the higher the opportunity cost of going to the synagogue. And not only that, a 2005 study by Michael McBride reported “an increase in the return to secular activities (e.g., higher wages) shifts religious demand to favor less strict religions.” In other words, the more money people make, the likelier they are to favor a less strict religion – and here we have Judaism with more rules than about anyone else! The correlation between higher wages and a preference for less strict religions probably at least partly explains the growth of the Reform movement. The study also says “However, denominations adjust their strictness levels to maintain affiliation rates.” That’s a strategy, however, which is not always effective, or at least it hasn’t been for the Conservative movement.
Other “strict” religions face similar problems. An article in the New York Times a few weeks ago was entit
led “Papal Homecoming: Benedict Faces a Fading Church.” The article pointed out that 30 years ago, 30% of Germans regularly attended Mass; that figure is now down to 15%. And for the Catholics as well, slowly becoming less strict probably won’t make much difference; a graduate student in the article was quoted as saying Pope Benedict seems more moderate than expected, but the student still does not plan to go back to attending church, and did not plan to go to the Mass the Pope was going to celebrate in Regensberg. “If you’re going to hike five kilometers for a spectacle,” he said, “I prefer rock concerts.”
Given all of these factors, the surprising thing isn’t that synagogue attendance in America has been declining; the surprising thing is that there are any synagogues left at all!
If people don’t seem to listen, and economic progress presents a gloomy prognosis for the future of religion, why are rabbis still giving those same sermons exhorting their congregants to find God? If a couple of generations of rabbis have not had success getting their congregants to be more observant and to put God at the center of their lives, why don’t we give it up? Why not just give sermons that will entertain or enlighten the declining numbers who attend, without bothering trying to get them – or the others who aren’t in the room at all — to do something they apparently don’t want to do?
There are a lot of reasons why we rabbis haven’t given up. For some of us, since we love our traditions, we’re concerned about Jewish continuity. We want our tradition to endure, and we know that as people drift away from Jewish observance and toward increasingly secular lives, their children and grand-children drift toward assimilation and intermarriage, lose the connection with Judaism, and are eventually “lost” to the Jewish people. I’ve seen it in my own family, as most of my nieces and nephews are not Jewish.
Personally, I’m not so worried about Jewish continuity. The Orthodox have enough kids and create tight enough communities that I’m sure we’ll always have Jews around.
Some rabbis keep plugging away at selling faith because of a sort of missionary fervor. We know how cool and rewarding the Jewish life can be, and we want to share it. On the other hand, there are a lot of other cool and rewarding things in life — I’m a pilot, I sail, I scuba, I play piano – and I don’t go around proselytizing for those activities. So there must be something else.
For me anyway, there is another reason. Yes, I believe being closer to God would be good for you, and yes I still have that missionary fervor. But I also believe that for you to be closer to God would be good for God.
God needs you.
There are those who would disagree, who would argue God can’t possibly need anything from us. For example, Pastor Fred Cedarholm said “Anyone who believes that the Almighty God needs man’s help to bring about the culmination of His Divine resolution for planet Earth has clearly not read the Bible.”
When I was living in Vancouver, Canada, one day I was driving down the road and saw one of those church message boards which read “God does not care what your opinion is.”
It made me want to put up a sign of my own by my synagogue. “God does SO care what your opinion is!”
God DOES need you.
That may sound like a radical statement to some people. How can God need anything or anyone? God is the Almighty, the Omnipotent, the Omnipresent. Our tradition teaches that God is everywhere, everywhen, and all powerful. To say God needs you would seem to imply that God is somehow lacking. How could the all-encompassing God, whom we call the ruler of the universe, be lacking anything? Especially when by comparison we’re so puny.
The psychoanalyst Jung said it is exactly our puniness which makes us of value to God. Jung asked, “But what does man possess that God does not have? Because of his littleness, puniness and defenselessness against the Almighty, he possesses, …a somewhat keener consciousness based on self-reflection.”
Jung said “God needs man in order to become conscious, just as he needs limitation in time and space. Let us therefore be for him limitation in time and space, an earthly tabernacle.”
But I would suggest that our value to God does not lie in our puniness. We are important to God because just like the differentiated cells in our bodies, we each have an important function to perform.
What is our important function? Kabbalah teaches that God interacts with the world through sefirot, which are ways in which God’s energy becomes manifest in the world. The mystics visualize these sefirot as channels like irrigation ditches. If the ditches become clogged, the water doesn’t flow, and life downstream suffers. When the ditches are clear, the water flows and nourishes all the life further downstream. The Kabbahlists say that when we sin, we are like birds pecking at the side of the canal, knocking dirt into it, causing a diminution in the Divine flow. When we obey God’s commandments, bringing holiness into the world, we are like workers cleaning out the canal, restoring the unimpeded flow of God’s bounty.
Asking “why does God need US to do that work, why doesn’t God do it God’s self?” is like asking why do you need red blood cells to carry oxygen to your brain, can’t you just do it yourself?
Kabbalah teaches that the ultimate level of God is Ein Sof, literally “without end,” the Infinite. Everything is part of God, although if all you do is add up all the parts it still does not equal God. As such, you are as much a part of God as a red blood cell carrying oxygen to your brain is a part of you. God needs you because you are an integral, essential part of God and the Universe.
I said that if you add up all the parts it still does not equal God. Similarly, you can have what looks like a human being laying on a table, yet if it is lacking one intangible ingredient, all you have is a corpse, not a living person. That intangible ingredient is what we call the soul.
And just as the soul makes the body alive, God makes the universe alive. God is the soul of the universe.
Just as your soul relies on the physical body parts to do the work that needs to be done, God, the soul of the universe, relies on you, one of the physical body parts of the universe, to get Her work done.
As Brother Carl Porter, an Evangelical Holiness minister from Georgia, preached: ”God ain’t no white-bearded man up in the sky somewhere. He’s a spirit. . . . He ain’t got no body. . . . The only body he’s got is us.”
Sometimes people go looking for God as an object “out there,” and are disappointed by what they see. The tradition says “God is just,” the tradition says “God is merciful,” but we look at the world and we see terrible brutality. We reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust and wonder how could there be a God if such things could happen? Or if there is a God, how could we possibly say that God is just or merciful?
Rabbi Harold Schulweis says we need to turn the statement around. Instead of saying “God is just,” say “Justice is Godly.” Instead of trying to find God as a thing in the world, as a noun, think of God as verb or adverb. God is not an object, God is an action. When we act in Godly ways – when we are just, when we are merciful, when we are kind – we make God’s presence in the world manifest. God needs us to do those things because we’re the part of God that has hands and hearts and minds. A lot of God’s work can’t happen without us.
Heschel said “God is in need of man for the attainment of His end
s, and religion, as Jewish tradition understands it, is a way of serving these ends, of which we are in need, even though we may not be aware of them, ends which we must learn to feel the need of. Life is a partnership of God and man.”
What we do and how we live our lives gives testimony to the presence of God. The prophet Isaiah said וְאַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם-יְי וַאֲנִי אֵ-ל “and you are my witnesses, said the Lord, that I am God.” The rabbis interpreted this in a very radical way: they said, “when you are my witnesses, I am God, and when you are not my witnesses, I am not God.” If we are not giving witness to God, if we are not living Godly lives, God’s presence is missing from the world.
One look at the world around us is all it takes for us to long for more of God’s loving presence. Look at the society we live in: America has developed much of the most advanced medical equipment in the world, yet we still have 40 million people who don’t have health insurance. The gap between rich and poor is becoming ever greater. Popular music celebrates promiscuity and violence—in fact one of today’s Top Ten songs is called simply “Promiscuity.” The average child watches four hours of television a day and will see 8,000 murders on TV by the time he or she finishes elementary school. 16,000 people are murdered in real life in America every year. The same child that watches four hours a day of television spends an average of three and a half minutes a week in a meaningful conversation with a parent. Yes, that’s three and a half minutes a WEEK!
Don’t get me wrong, the freedom we have in America is great. I do not favor changing popular culture through censorship. It’s wonderful that we live in a country where people are free to make a hit song praising promiscuity and others are free to download it. But I think it’s sad that we buy more records praising promiscuity than records praising fidelity.
And that’s really what we need religion for. To create a society that is more Godly. To create a society where we know the difference not only between right and wrong, but between sacred and profane.
A few days ago someone commented to me how incredibly well behaved and helpful a certain rabbi’s children were. That’s not a coincidence. Being raised in a home where God is a presence brings out the Godly in our children.
And that’s the real purpose of religion. It’s not about your personal fulfillment, it’s about making a better world. So all of us rabbis and preachers exhorting our flocks to greater observance because it’s the path to self-fulfillment are in a sense barking up the wrong tree. There are some preachers who go so far up the wrong tree that they preach a message of “God wants you to be rich.” I kid you not, they call these churches ones that subscribe to a “Prosperity,” theology.
I don’t think God cares if you get rich or not. And I don’t think God put you here so you can achieve spiritual fulfillment either.
Everyone thinks life is about their happiness. America was founded on the idea that we are each entitled to pursue happiness. So when we sell products in this country, the pitch is that they’re going to make you happier. Buy this car, you’ll go around singing “zoom, zoom, zoom” all day. And we all too often sell religion on the same basis.
Pitching religion on the basis that it will make you happier certainly isn’t new. In October of 1955 B’nai Israel held the first program ever in this building. In the B’nai Israel Bulletin for that month my illustrious predecessor, Rabbi Morton Goldberg, wrote the following: “Most of us have been in the Synagogue a number of times during the past six weeks as we observed our High Holydays and our Succos Festival. Nearly 700 worshippers crowded our Synagogue for Simchas Torah. Frankly, I am appealing to you to continue in the habit of Synagogue attendance by coming to our beautiful service Friday evening or Saturday morning. I urge this upon you for reasons of your own health. Medical authorities of our day are telling us that the human organism is neither physiologically or psychologically equipped to withstand the tensions of our time. As a result we find ourselves beset by neuroses and our lives become jangled. The Sabbath can therefore make a great contribution to human health if you will permit it to be for you a day of spiritual serenity and mental equanimity…Try it. Start with your family and friends this Sabbath. It will be good for your health.” And of course as you all know, I’ve made similar appeals myself, 50 years later.
And it’s not only Jews who sell religion on the basis of it being good for you. One of the best-selling spiritual books ever, outside of the various scriptures themselves, is one by a Christian minister named Rick Warren called “The Purpose Driven Life,” which has sold over 25 million copies so far. On the first page of his book, Pastor Warren says by following the advice in his book you will “reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, increase your satisfaction, and, most important, prepare you for eternity.”
But even though he makes that powerful sales pitch, that’s just in the introduction. The very first chapter begins “It’s not about you.”
And that’s a very important lesson. Those of us trying to peddle religion sometimes forget it ourselves when we try to convince people that being more religious is the path to happiness. Because that’s not really the point. It’s NOT about you.
God didn’t tell Abraham lech lecha, go, leave, head out on a journey, because he wanted Abraham to achieve spiritual fulfillment.
God didn’t instruct Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt so that they could all be self-actualized and feel good about themselves.
God didn’t give Adam dominion over the Earth so he could lead a pampered life in the lap of luxury.
Each of these men had a particular mission. So do you. A Chasidic rabbi taught “It is the duty of every person in Israel to know and consider that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world. Every single person is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill his particularity in this world. For verily: that this is not done, is the reason why the coming of the Messiah is delayed.”
If God seems to be missing from the world—if the Messiah has not yet come, if there is no peace in the world—it’s our own fault. As Heschel put it, “God’s being immanent depends on us.” If we want God to be immanent – if we want God to be revealed, if we want to see God’s presence – then we have some work to do.
Instead of asking “what can God do for me?” ask “what can I do for God?” The Talmud asks, “what does the verse ‘you shall walk after the Lord your God’ mean? …the verse teaches us that we should walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be he. As God clothes the naked, you too should clothe the naked. As God visited the sick, you too should visit the sick. As God comforted mourners, you too should comfort mourners. As God buried the dead, you too should bury the dead.”
Today is the first day of a New Year. Let us all resolve to make the new year, 5767, a year in which God’s light will shine stronger. Let us all resolve to give more money to charity, and to give of our time as well as our wallets. Let us all resolve to be kinder and to be more thoughtful. Let us all resolve to bring more sacred moments into our lives through following
our religious traditions – and to invite other people to share those sacred moments, like a Shabbat dinner, or a discussion of words of Torah.
We are in a symbiotic relationship with God. The spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy taught “Man and God are one another’s supreme necessity. Man needs God for his highest transcendental realisation and God needs man for His absolute earthly manifestation. Man needs God to realise his highest truth, his highest existence. God needs man to manifest Him here on earth totally, divinely and supremely.”
When we act in a Godly way we benefit both ourselves and God. When we bring holiness into the world, clearing the muddy channels so the Divine flow can pour into this world, we are creating a better place – for ourselves and everyone around us.
And in the process of acting Godly, we find God. For God is not out there, God is in here.
And if we do move in the direction of being more Godly, that shouldn’t lead us to excessive pride. As Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn said “One should not make a great to-do about serving God. Does the hand boast when it carries out the will of the heart?”
Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, help us to find the God that is beyond us by helping us to express the Godly within us,