What If I Don't Believe in God?

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs
Kol Nidre 5761

In Noah Gordon's marvelous novel, The Rabbi, young Michael Kind intervenes to rescue Rabbi Max Gross from a New York City mugging. The encounter with the Rabbi stimulates in Michael questions about his own beliefs. He returns to the Rabbi's apartment and says:

"Tell me about God,"

"What is it you want to know?" (The Rabbi asked)

"How can you be sure that man didn't imagine God, because he was afraid of the dark and the lousy cold, because he needed the protection of anything, even his own stupid imagination?"ÉI think I've become an agnostic."

"No, no, no," Rabbi Gross responded, "then call yourself an atheist. Because how can anyone be certain that God existsÉDo you think I have scientific knowledge of God? Can I go back in time and be there when God speaks to Isaac or delivers the Commandments? If this could be done there would be only one religion in the world; we would all know which group is right.

Now it happens to be the way of all men to take sides. A man has to make a decision. About God, you don't know, and I don't know. But I have made a decision in favor of God. You have made a decision against Him."

"I've made no decisions," Michael said a bit sullenly. "That's why I'm here. I'm full of questions. I want to study with you."

Rabbi Gross touched the books piled on his table. "A lot of great thoughts are contained here," he said. "But they don't hold the answer to your questions. They can't help you decide. First you make a decision. Then we will study."

"No matter what I decide? Suppose I think God is a fable, a bubbeh-meisir."

"No matter."

Outside in the dark hallway, Michael looked back at the closed door of the shul. Goddam you, he thought. And then, in spite of everything, he smiled at his choice of words.

Like young Michael, many of us do not believe in God. Many of us do not believe in a God who judges us during this sacred season.

The most stark and -- for many -- most difficult prayer of this High Holy Day season is the "Unetaneh Tokef", which we pray at the morning service on the Holy Days.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many shall pass on and how many shall come to be;
who shall live and who shall die;
who shall see ripe old age and who shall not;
who shall perish by fire and who by water;
who by sword and who by beast;
who by hunger and who by thirst;

but, the prayer concludes:

Repentance, Prayer, and Charity temper judgment's severe decree.

In the past year I have performed more funerals than any other year of my rabbinate. I certainly do not believe, and no one I know believes, that those who died in the past year died because they were deficient in repentance, prayer and charity.

None of us knows who shall live and who shall die in the coming year. To a great degree, how long we live is beyond our control, but how we live is up to us.

We can unlock the door of unbelief that stands between many of us and the purpose and the prayers of this day with the Hebrew expression ke-ilu which means "as if."

It is a simple concept. Whatever our beliefs, if we can act -- ke-ilu -- "as if" we stand this day under God's scrutiny, we shall make a giant leap forward.

The word "Yisrael" means, "one who struggles with God." It does not mean, "one who believes in God", and it does not mean "one who is always comfortable with God." It means, "one who struggles with God." These High Holy Days invite us to serious struggle and effort.

The "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer is one of the best "struggling tools" ever. It has the power to change our lives.

Once, during the Russo-Japanese War at the beginning of this century, writes S. Y. Agnon in Days of Awe, "a committee of Jewish soldiers passed through all the hospitals, and announced there would be public prayer for" the Holy Days.

"It was an awful sight. Many of those who came were incapacitated, gloomy, and lean as corpses; many É were armless, lame, leaned on crutches, were blind, and bore wounds of every descriptionÉ

During the Unetaneh Tokef prayer no words were heard in the House of Prayer; only tear-choked voices filed the atmosphere of the little house. The cantor's voice became stronger and stronger and struck sparks in the air: 'who will live and who will die, who in his time, and who before his time.' Those were terrible and awful moments."

How many of those men were believers? I do not know, but, the saying goes, "there are no atheists in fox holes." The real possibility of imminent death gave urgency and meaning to their prayers.

The purpose of Yom Kippur is to imagine our imminent death. On this day we separate our selves from bodily pleasures. We imagine that we have died, and we envision ourselves trembling before the throne of a God who calls us to account for our actions.

Even if we do not believe in God, is it not well for us to try to answer the questions our tradition ascribes to God? How did we use the time we had? Did we use our abilities simply to provide for ourselves, or did we work to make the world a better place? What did we do last year that we wish we could change?

Actions in the Jewish religion are more important than beliefs. That is one of the vital differences between Jewish and classical Christian thinking.

The Jerusalem Talmud ascribes the following quotation to God: "Would that My people forsake Me, but keep my commandments!"

Elie Wiesel was a young journalist living in Israel when he published his first book, Night, in 1958. Once, he had been a budding Talmud scholar, an ilui, a gifted one, a genius.

He was in the words of Francois Mauriac, "One of God's elect. From the time when his conscience first awoke, he had lived only for God and had been reared on the Talmud É dedicated to the Eternal."

But then, during the Holocaust, he watched "his mother, a beloved little sister, and all his family except his father disappear into an oven fed with living creatures." He watched the slow agony of his father's tortured death from exposure, exhaustion and dysentery after a merciless midwinter march from Gleiwitz to Buchenwald.

"NeverÉ" Wiesel wrote, "Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and turned my dreams to dust."

No one who has read Night can ever forget Wiesel's description of the scene where the Gestapo hanged a small child. "For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.

Behind me I heard (a) man asking:

'Where is God now?'

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

'Where is He? Here He is -- He is hanging here on the gallows."

Out of the broken pieces of his life and his faith, Elie Wiesel has forged a remarkable career that ranks him among the greats of Jewish history and earned him --among many honors-- the Nobel Prize in Peace for 1986. He may have stopped believing in God, but he acted as if a God of love, mercy and justice watched and judged his every action.

The Talmud teaches us (Kiddushin 40b) that we should approach Yom Kippur thinking our good deeds and our bad deeds balance each other on the scales. Therefore we should go through life alert for the opportunity to do good that will tip the scales in our favor. Who knows what the impact of that next mitzvah can be?

Once, a despondent young girl&emdash;single and pregnant-- decided to take her own life. While contemplating how she would end it all, she wandered into a coffee shop and with her last dollar ordered a small cup of soup. The waitress sensing her distress gave her a large bowl of soup and a glass of milk.

The young woman told the waitress that she had made a mistake and that she only had enough money for a small cup of soup. The waitress patted the girls arm and said, "That's Ok, honey. You look like you need it." The waitress never knew that she had saved the girl's life. Her act of kindness motivated the young woman to seek help and abandon her suicide plan

A famous story tells of a rabbi who was missing from the synagogue on Yom Kippur Eve, the holiest night of the year. The worried elders searched for him all over town. Eventually they found him in a small house close to the synagogue holding a small baby in his arms.

When the dumbfounded congregational president asked, "What are you doing here?" The Rabbi responded:

"I would have been there in plenty of time, but on my way to Kol Nidre services, I heard the baby crying. Seeing no one in the house, I stopped to comfort him."

For Jews what we do is more important than what we believe or how we pray. Comforting a crying child is a more sacred act than the holiest of prayers.

As Rabbi Max Gross told Michael Kind: "About God you don't know and I don't know, but it is in the nature of human beings to make a choice."

Personally, my choice is for God. My faith strengthens me in times of trouble; my faith enhances life's joys. For me faith in God is a precious gift.

That gift, though, is not one that everyone has or wants. But even for those who do not believe, this day holds hope and promise.

Even if we do not believe in God, we can choose to act -- kee eeloo -- as if we do!

Even if we do not believe in God, we can act --as if we come under God's scrutiny on this holiest of days --

Even if we do not believe in God, we can act as if our fate rested on the merit of our actions --

And even if we do not believe in God, we can choose life and blessing -- for ourselves and for others -- and that is the choice that really matters!


Rabbi Stephen Fuchs serves Congregation Beth Israel of West Hartford, Connecticut.