Clergy are hesitant to exclude agnostic or atheist Jews, and the questions involved are difficult to confront, so the topic often goes unaddressed
RABBI AVI FINEGOLD
FOUNDER, THE JEWISH LEARNING LIBRARY, MONTREAL
RABBI PHILIP SCHEIM
BETH DAVID B’NAI ISRAEL BETH AM CONGREGATION, TORONTO
Rabbi Scheim: I was fascinated by a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, headlined “Googling for God.” The author suggests that Internet searches implying skepticism and doubt regarding religion were on the increase.
Seemingly, many of the faithful are willing to share their spiritual doubts from behind the safety of their computer screens, but are much less likely to confront their clergymen and women with similar expressions of uncertain faith.
Admittedly, God-talk is not a definitive feature of most of our synagogues. My suspicion is that the more traditionalist the community or rabbi, the less often one is likely to hear a sermon or a lecture on the subject of God. Like many, if not most, rabbis, my sermons tend to focus on observance, Jewish learning, morality, Israel, and rarely if at all on the topic of God.
I would need a second Yom Kippur for atonement were I to place God and elephants in the same sentence, but I suspect that this, for traditional Jews, may be the proverbial elephant in the room: our hesitation to address fundamental issues of belief in the Creator of the universe, which, at least according to the Rambam, is the first of all mitzvot.
Are we rabbis hesitant to focus on belief for fear that we would open a door to doubt that would better remain closed?
Rabbi Finegold: I can only speak for my own practice, but I fear that I fall squarely into your categorization. I teach adults extensively and I often avoid the topic of God. Maybe this is wrong, but this is often a clear decision on my part.
I don’t want to alienate those in the room that are clearly already agnostic or atheistic. My feeling is that these individuals are more and more present and more and more vocal in our communities, whether we like it or not. And while my belief in a divine being is strong, I don’t want those that do not have the same conviction to feel there is no room for them in my big tent.
If someone doesn’t believe in God, but wants to sit in a Bible class and learn about their heritage, I want them to have that as a full and valid expression of their Judaism.
Rabbi Scheim: A prominent cantor once shared with me that he was an atheist. A very likable individual, his honesty impressed me, but I admit to having being troubled by the seeming conflict between his role as shliach tzibur, emissary of the people before God and his denial of belief in the existence of the recipient of the prayers he would so beautifully chant.
Likely, there are other cantors, rabbis and devoted practitioners of Jewish prayer who avoid the fundamental theological question of God’s existence, because of the difficult questions that arise, especially in light of the tragic dimensions of the last century of Jewish history. Like you, I would never be dismissive of one who struggles with the concept of God, but would want to find a way to open the discussion, since intellectual honesty should accompany us in our pursuit of Jewish learning and practice.
Rabbi Finegold: When I teach classes about Judaism and sexuality, I invariably point out that the values presented in Jewish thought about sex are presented from a heteronormative and masculine point of view, but that this does not mean the values cannot be transferred to other forms of relationships.
Perhaps we need to talk more about God unabashedly and make a similar point. We should say that Jewish tradition has always placed God at the centre, and that we personally place God at the centre, but just because someone else does not doesn’t make them unwelcome at the table anymore.
Perhaps there are other ways to be more inclusive. I would love to hear from people who have questions about God internally as to why they choose not to share them with their clergy as much as they do with Google. I am also curious as to how they feel when clergy do discuss God. Do they understand that it is a central part of their message and teaching, or does it turn them more away from religion as a result?