Atheism is in fashion these days. About a quarter of my Intro to Judaism students worry that I will find out that they do not believe in God. Another quarter are deeply suspicious of something they call “organized religion” because it is “the source of all the trouble in the world.” They are all serious, thoughtful people, and something has brought them to my class despite their misgivings: a need to explore Jewish roots, an important relationship, or a profound feeling of connection to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.
And yet there is this god thing: I have begun to think of it as The Godzilla Problem.
A young friend of mine recently commented on Facebook that her phone now autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.” I sat and looked at that post, and it dawned on me that THAT was a perfect distillation of the problem: the god that my students refer to so distastefully is a monster god who blasts and condemns and punishes very much like the Japanese monster with whom it shares three letters. Like Godzilla, he is scary but not real.
I don’t worship that god. There are people who do worship it. They believe that there is a Big Person who will blast and punish evildoers. They talk with relish about that god’s opinions and predict his actions at some future time. They act in the name of that god and do terrible things to other people “for their own good.” Those people espouse many different religions; they cherry-pick the Torah and other scriptures for proof-texts. Unfortunately they are noisy people and for many, they have become the voice of religion.
The God I worship, whose title I will capitalize, is more enigmatic: this God shines through every experience that leaves me with my jaw hanging open. I witness God in the smell of a newborn baby, in the power of an earthquake, in our questions at at the side of an open grave. I witness God in acts of selflessness and acts of courage. Abraham Joshua Heschel described this notion of God much better than I ever shall when he wrote about “radical amazement.”
Torah is the process of Jews trying to wrap their minds around the Wonder: it is a dance between the amazed People and the Object of their amazement. I believe that the best way our ancestors could come up with to relate to Wonder was to personify God, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore holiness. They made a covenant with God, with commandments to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the amazingness of the universe. At the same time, our tradition warns against falling in love with mere images.
Heartbreaking evil has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. I believe firmly that such acts are acts of idolatry: that so-called “god” is indeed “Godzilla.”
As a rabbi, as a teacher, my challenge is to wedge past the monster and lead my students through the door to amazement and questions. In our amazement with this world, with the questions of love and death, we may indeed approach the truth of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.
I commend you for your efforts to dispel the ‘Godzilla problem’. I have met people who honestly believe that god will kill a bunch of us humans off in a war or natural disaster so that the rest of will obey!!?! This punitive god concept is an idea whose time is long past.
There is one word which you use in your narrative, ‘Worship’, which I disagree with. This word suggests to me and many others that we are here and God is out there somewhere. That God is an entity which influences us from afar when in fact God is in every one of the billions of cells that make a human being. I know that you know this, it is only the word that suggests the separation.
Another word I dislike is ‘God Fearing’. Why would you fear God if God is part of you? Society is fear based. There is fearful stories and comments on all of the mainstream media broadcasts.
We should perhaps introduce a new phrase to show our veneration of God, call ourselves ‘God Loving’ people.
Keep up the good work
Thanks for reading and commenting, Gerry. I have no argument with anyone’s belief, only with the fact that people abuse one another, justifying it with their religious beliefs. I’m a firm believer in freedom of religion.
Interesting thing about the word “God-fearing.” The word that the King James Bible translated as “fear” could also be translated as “awe.” My own belief is that God is not contained: neither inside me nor outside me, completely beyond any definition I can devise.
I appreciate your comments!
Religion is of course very important becuase it also helps us to be a good person for others. it doesnt matter what kind of religion you have, as long as it promotes goodness. ‘*.:,
Thanks for commenting, Annabel! That also opens up questions about goodness, of course – not every religion agrees on the definition. How do you decide what goodness means to you?
Pingback: The Difficulty of God-talk « Coffee Shop Rabbi
Thanks for this wonderful post. I read once (wish I could remember where) that the commandment about taking God’s name in vain has nothing to do with cleaning up our everyday speech, though that’s not a bad idea. Instead, it forbids us from doing evil in God’s name. To me this makes a lot more sense, considering the high status of the ten commandments.
Very interesting! My understanding of that commandment is that it concerns the taking of oaths, which are not plain old “cussing” but swearing by the name of God to do or not do something. However, I need to learn a little more about it. Thank you for raising an interesting question!
For what it’s worth, I found the reference. It comes from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s book “Biblical Literacy”, Page 426 in the 1997 Edition (“The Third Commandmant”).
Oops, sorry about the spelling error.