Rabbi, Do I Need to Believe in God?
People often confess private and intimate things to their Rabbi. Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of broadcasting and media fame, has even written a book, ‘Confessions of a Rabbi,’ which is a recommended light-hearted, entertaining, and sometimes heart-breaking read. But more times than I can tell you, the thing people confess most often to me (especially at levoyas and stone settings) is the following:
‘Rabbi, I’m a member at Oaks Lane. I’ve been a member for many years. But I’m afraid you don’t see me very often in shul. Rabbi… I have to confess….I’m not a believer.’
Do I Need to Believe in God to come to Shul?
This Rosh HaShanah, as we gather together, answering that most ancient call of our People to come and be counted, to see and be seen, our liturgy urges us to ask the most important questions, the questions that have the power to shape our lives. This Rosh HaShanah I want to ask: Do you have to believe in God to come to shul? To show up and be counted? Not just today, at the Jewish New Year, but throughout the year?
One of the communities I most enjoyed being an active member of was the Newton Centre Minyan, which met in the same building where I went to rabbinical school in Boston, Massachusets. The service takes place in the main hall, and then there are about 3 or 4 Children’s services happening at the same time in rooms off a connecting corridor. At the Newton Centre Minyan on a Shabbat morning it’s part of the community culture to go in to the service for half an hour, to mosey out and have a good yachne in the corridor for the next half hour, and then to mosey in again. We know about the dismal decorum in some shuls, where the norm is that you can hardly hear the service for all the talking. But here in the UK, there are plenty of Progressive Shuls that have alternatives to a Shabbat morning service being held as parallel activities going on at the same time – like the Shabbat morning discussions at Edgware and Hendon Reform or Northwood and Pinner Liberal, or shuls where members are welcome to sit and read the Jewish papers in a comfy coffee lounge with others.
Since I turned out as a rabbi, it will be no surprise to you that I have been a shul junky since I was 11 years old, which is the age I first started going to shul when my mum started her conversion process back in the early 1970s. Do I believe in God? It is my experience of God that sustains me throughout the joys and challenges of life, it is where I draw my strength and my resilience, it is the bedrock beneath my feet and the flowing Source of Life from which I drink. Yet, I am in good company with the greatest spiritual leaders such as Chief Rabbi Emeritus Jonathan Sacks, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, when I confess that there are times when I doubt.
What we mean by God – how we experience God – is something many Jews feel uncomfortable or even embarrassed talking about. Perhaps we should talk more about God and listen to each other’s experiences of Holiness to nourish our own.
But do you have to believe in God to come to shul? To show up and be counted? Not just today, at the Jewish New Year, but throughout the year?
I can tell you, there are many different and varied ways to be part of the Jewish People, to be part of this community – and believing in God is only one of them. This has been so throughout Jewish history, since ancient times.
Just look around, and we can see that our world is not in great shape. You could say, that society as we know it is unravelling. Our sense of who we are, our connection to others, and our place in the world, have been eroded. Loneliness is widespread amongst the young as well as the elderly. The Office for National Statistics confirms that rates of depression continue to rise.
In ‘Homo Deus’, the second of his best-selling trilogy, Israeli historian turned global phenomenon Yuval Noah Harari , argues that, since the Enlightenment, we human beings have dethroned God, and placed ourselves at the centre of the universe, creating a cult of the Individual, where all meaning is subjective, drawn from our individual inner feelings, thoughts and values.
This view is shared by scholars, philosophers and academics who have described the erosion of the beliefs and institutions of the past 300 years, including organised religion, as leading to a Meaning Crisis in our current age. Positive psychologists agree that finding purpose and meaning in our lives is an essential ingredient in human happiness and well-being.
Finding purpose and meaning in connecting to the Jewish People
In that ancient call to gather together on this day, in the blasts of the shofar that rouse us to awake from our slumber, we sense the reverberation of purpose and meaning. Purpose and meaning in connecting to the Jewish People. A People that – yes – has been persecuted time and again throughout the course of history – and also a living People that has survived against the odds where other great nations have fallen away from the face of history – from mighty Babylonia, to ancient Greece, to Assyria and the Roman Empire. A People that has conceived a moral code and ethical values that endure for all time, as relevant for us today as two and half thousand years ago. A People that has disproportionately batted above its tiny numbers, producing great books like the Bible and the Talmud, great commentators like Rashi and Rambam, great activists at the forefront of social change, fighting for justice and social equality; great musicians and composers, scientists and doctors, great Nobel prize winners from Albert Einstein to Bob Dylan. We find purpose and meaning in that ancient call to gather together on this day, a call that connects us to the Jewish People, a People that has returned to its ancient homeland, creating the modern State of Israel which, for all its challenges – and which country doesn’t have its challenges?! – remains a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, achieving outstanding success as a start-up nation across so many fields – and not just technology and science. Jewish civilisation is rich and diverse and vibrant today – surprisingly, right here in the UK, not just in America and Israel. From the brilliant success of Jewish schools, to the upsurge in Jewish learning and culture (this year’s UK Jewish film is just around the corner,) to the phenomenal success of Limmud, where over 2000 Jews and friends from around the world gather over the Christmas break each year to celebrate all things Jewish, from learning to spirituality, from politics to comedy, music and wellbeing. As we answer that ancient call to gather together on this day, we connect with pride to the Jewish People, and strengthen our sense of who we are, our connection to others, and our place in the world.
Celebrating our Achievements at SWESRS
It’s Rosh HaShanah. As we gather today, I want to celebrate the remarkable achievements we have made as a community in the past year. This community is turning itself around.
It’s only 18 months since SWESRS faced financial crisis. Now, not only are we financially on an even keel, but SWESRS is embracing change, and experiencing renewal and regeneration. At last July’s AGM 180 of you showed up to be counted, with the momentum sustained at the community meetings in January and May. In January 70 members signed up to volunteer for new and existing groups, from the Care Team, to the Strategic Planning group, to the Social and Cultural group, to the Catering Team. Volunteers form the backbone, the very fabric of community. Without volunteers, we could not exist. Speak to any of our volunteers, and you will find that for each and every one them, in the work they do in this community, they find meaning and purpose, deepening a sense of connection with the Jewish People, strengthening a sense of who they are and their place in the world.
SWESRS is embracing change, and experiencing renewal and regeneration. The future of our community looks more hopeful and positive than we could ever have envisioned just a year and a half ago. But for this renewal and regeneration to be sustained, we need all of you to own it. We need all you to step up and get involved, to give your time, your energy, your commitment, your ongoing financial support. Each one of you counts. Each one of you makes a difference.
So what shall I answer to the congregant’s confession: ‘Rabbi, I’ve been a member for many years. But I’m afraid you don’t see me in shul very often. Rabbi… I have to confess….I’m not a believer.’
Do you have to believe in God to come to shul? To show up and be counted? Not just today, at the Jewish New Year, but throughout the year?
This Rosh HaShanah, may we each contribute to the regeneration of this, our community. May we find greater purpose and meaning in our lives. May we all be renewed and sustained through a deeper connection to the Jewish People.
I wish you all Good Health and Blessing, and a Shana Tovah.