• Home
  • Parashah Insights
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals & Fasts
  • Articles
  • Books
  • About

    God without religion, religion without God

    September 25th, 2016


    hands skyNo Jewish hymn is as popular as Adon Olam. Not only in the synagogue but on the concert platform and wherever people sing. The rhyme and rhythm are a godsend to pop-composers.

    Never mind that it is highly religious poetry and many people (performers and audiences alike) sing it with gusto without covered heads.

    The great thing about Adon Olam, however, is not the poetic style or the musical renditions, but the theological paradox. The hymn has two halves, one philosophical and one emotional, and no-one seems to ask how they can co-exist.

    The first half is about the existence and nature of God. Its assertions come straight out of the classical works of Jewish philosophy. The second half begins with the words, V’Hu E-li – “He is my God”. “He is mine, my Redeemer liveth, He is my Rock in times of turmoil; into His hand I commend my spirit; I shall not fear.”

    It is the great paradox of religion – God’s distance and His closeness; the Supreme, Eternal Principle who loves and can be loved.

    For an analogy, look at Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King”. Look at the words that follow the shofar blasts in the Rosh HaShanah Musaf service, “We are His children, we are His subjects”.

    A King is high and objective, a father is close and compassionate; a child is loving, a servant is fearful. In the first half of Adon Olam we speak of His nature, in the second half we yearn for His love and support.

    How do we come closer to Him? By religion, from a Latin root that means to bind or tie. By finding a relationship with Him.


    Many people turn up for Rosh HaShanah services and join in the singing without really believing a word of it.

    They mouth the word “God” but are unsure whether they believe in Him. They go along with the words of the prayers without taking them seriously. They would feel lost without their annual passing nod to religion, but they wouldn’t claim to be religious.

    So what’s the point of all these religious things if they lack conviction? Is there a point in religion when you’re not religious?

    On one level there are human needs which religion seems to satisfy – Hannah Arendt sums them up as the comfort, discipline and survival values of religion. In other words, religion is good for society even if God doesn’t come into it.

    The Talmud seems to go along with this view. Jews are marked, say the sages, by three things – they are rachmanim (compassionate), bay’shanim (modest) and gom’lei chassadim (kindly). Compassion means feeling for others. Modesty means not being blatant. Kindness means being helpful and supportive.

    When two of the sages (Avot D’Rabbi Natan chapter 4) were talking about life without the Temple, Rabbi Y’hoshua said that without sacrifices there was no means of atonement. Rabbi Yochanan said that the way to atonement was g’millut chassadim, doing kindly deeds. No apparent mention of God. No traditional dogmas or doctrines. No spiritual dimensions such as belief, prayer, awe and humility.

    Do God and spirituality make things better? I believe they do.

    They add truth: recognition that existence has non-earthly components with which man can commune. Humility: a means of measuring man’s littleness against God’s greatness and knowing that small though we might be, we all matter.

    Repentance: picking oneself up after having fallen and strayed. Aloneness: being solitary and yet never abandoned. Holiness: God is not grubby, nor do we have to be.

    Life before death

    September 25th, 2016

    choose lifeDeath is a fact but not an obsession.

    Some Jewish texts such as Pir’kei Avot assert that this world is the entrance hall of the World to Come.

    It is problematic if this implies that the afterlife matters more than life on earth.

    The Kabbalah said that this is olam ha’asiyyah, the world of action, the world where things are done, the world of achievement.

    Life on earth is important in itself, not for any reward that lies in store in the World to Come.

    This is the world where so many things are good and we can make them even better. This is the world where there is so much potential and our task is to uncover and discover the potential and bring it out into the open to flourish and grow.

    No-one knows precisely what awaits us in the next world; indeed we don’t even know what lies around the corner in this world. But in this world we know that if we have challenges we also have opportunities.

    The High Holyday prayers say, Hayom Harat Olam, “This day the world is burgeoning with promise” (the translators often miss the point that harat is a word for pregnancy; it is sheer imagination to render the words “This day is the world’s assize”).

    Turning the promise into reality is the privilege that is placed in our hands every Rosh HaShanah.

    Everyone was there – Nitzavim

    September 25th, 2016

    ritualThe Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah sees a sidra which describes a Yom-Tov-like crowd, “Your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives and your stranger, from your hewers of wood to your water-drawers” (Deut. 29:9).

    Who were the hewers of wood and drawers of water?

    Possibly the people who would otherwise be considered insignificant because of their lowly occupations.

    Rashi sees them as outsiders, hangers-on, people who joined on to the Israelite crowd and said, “I want to be an Israelite, and I am willing to perform any menial task you give me”.

    Moses heard what these people were saying but was not prepared to accept them as proselytes.

    Where did the commentators get the idea of hangers-on who wanted to be Jewish? It comes from the reference to “your stranger”.

    This suggests one of the Jewish principles of conversion: an applicant must have a genuine wish to live a Jewish life if they seek to become Jewish.

    A certain rabbi reports that when he once landed in a small town to conduct High Holyday services, he encountered a local inhabitant who said, “I want to convert to Judaism because you Jews look after each other”.

    What the rabbi did not hear was the words of Ruth, “Your God will be my God.”

    They would have made a considerable difference.

    The secret things – Nitzavim

    September 25th, 2016

    quiet silenceIt’s a wonderful but difficult verse – “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; the revealed things are ours and our children’s for ever” (Deut. 29:28).

    Jewish commentary offers a range of explanations. Some scholars say that this verse shows the difference between types of wrongful acts.

    “Public” wrongs are judged by human law courts; “private” sins are dealt with by God.

    In this sense the verse is telling us that things that we thought no-one knew about are known to God, and no-one can escape the Almighty’s account and reckoning. How God knows, and how He deals with such things, is His concern.

    One of the questions which the verse impels upon us is how to define the “secret” things.

    There is no one answer but in many cases what goes with being “secret” is that we are privately ashamed of what we said or did and would not want other people to know about it.

    Does this then mean that acts of stupidity will always be held against us by God?

    Of course not, since there is such a thing as repentance. According to Maimonides, there are three elements in repentance – admitting the sin (and the hardest part of this is probably admitting it to oneself), regretting it, and resolving not to repeat it.

    It’s a pertinent subject for us to contemplate at this time of the Jewish year.

    Looking forward – Ki Tavo

    September 18th, 2016

    map_israelEvery family knows how hard it is to go on a family holiday.

    Everything packed after constant arguments about what to take, parents and children pile into the car and set off. It is probably quite a long journey and fractious children make it worse.

    “Aren’t we there yet?” they keep asking. “Not far now,” replies the sorely tried driver, fully aware that it will take at least another hour or two. Amazingly, next year they’ll do it all again!

    Not that interminable journeys are a modern problem. Imagine what it was like for the B’nei Yisra’el in the wilderness, knowing that their arrival in the Promised Land was not likely to be an soon or easy. Just look at the opening verses of this week’s reading – “When you come to the Land which the Lord our God gives you…” (Deut. 26:1-3).

    It took forty years (even the most fractious modern family never has such a lengthy trek), but on arrival a new reality had to be confronted – settling in, adjusting, carving out a future, and establishing a regime on the basis of the moral law of the Torah constitution.

    Some Israelites constantly looked back, nostalgic for what they were used to.

    But the best way to face a new chapter in life is to live for tomorrow, not yesterday, and to say it’s a time to create. As the Aliyah song used to say, “to build and to be rebuilt”.

    Olim who arrive in Israel need to decide that Israel isn’t France or America: it’s Israel, and Olim have to help make it the best Israel they can.