“Rabbi,” someone recently asked me, “You speak and write about many topics, but what do you believe about God?”
This essay is my best answer to that question.
My Unanswered Prayer
God and I have always had a very personal relationship. So it seemed natural to me that when I was 18 years old and stepped onto the ice for my first hockey practice at Hamilton College I offered God a deal: “God, if you make me an all-American hockey player, then, I’ll become a rabbi.” As any witness to my Hamilton hockey career can attest, God categorically rejected that proposal.
Now, more than a half-century later, I think God must have laughed at my offer and said. “Miracles I can perform, didn’t I part the Red Sea? But, Steve, you are asking too much.
No, I have given you just enough athletic talent so that if you work really hard, you may achieve some limited success but you will learn important lessons that will help you for the rest of your life. As far as becoming a rabbi goes, I now perceive that God’s response was: “Don’t do me any favors! But, if that is what you really want, and –again—if you really work hard, I’ll grant you a meaningful pulpit career, opportunities to travel beyond your dreams, and the privilege of making a difference at times in people’s lives.”
If I could have discerned these answers when I was 18, I might have thought the Almighty was rejecting me, but today I bow my head in gratitude for the many ways God has blessed me.
I find great wisdom in Garth Brooks’ song: Unanswered Prayers (Link above).
It is about a youth who fervently prayed that the girl he loved more than life itself would return his love and marry him. It did not happen. Many years later, when he met that girl by chance at a football game, he realized that his life was much happier with the woman he did marry, than he would have been with his high school love. “Sometimes,” he concludes, “God’s greatest gift is unanswered prayers.”
God Is a Mystery
Even after all of my years of religious study, most of what God does remains a mystery to me. That sense of mystery and wonder move me to say: “There is a reason that we come to worship God and do not expect God to come and worship us.”
For many, though, questions they cannot answer about God squelch their belief. If there were a good God, they say, there could not have been a Holocaust. If there were a good God, there would be no hunger and poverty in the world, and there would be no floods, famines or natural disasters. If a good God were in control of the world, innocent children would not die. God would protect us from harm and disease.
In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote one of the most influential books ever about God: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
After the death of his son Aaron from a rare disease, progeria, that caused him to age prematurely and die at 14, Kushner decided he could no longer accept the idea of God who is both all good and all-powerful. And so he postulated that God’s goodness is infinite but that God’s power is not. There is, Kushner claimed, a realm of nature beyond God’s control. His book performed a great service by enabling many who once could not believe to believe once again.
Was Rabbi Kushner right? I am not sure.
Rather than claim that God’s power is limited, I believe our knowledge is limited. We can understand some of what God does, but there is so much about God that we do not know and can never know.
Too often, though, we create God in our image instead of the other way around.
We think our fine minds should apprehend everything there is to know about God. In our arrogance we think that if something happens that does not comport with our view of the way we believe God should act, then clearly there is no God.
We have all seen good people suffer. We have all watched helplessly while a righteous person writhed in pain or died young while a person with seemingly no regard for anything but his or her own selfish needs lived a long life in robust good health. There is much about God that we do not understand. And maybe there is nothing about God we can say backed by scientific proof!
Jewish thinking does not rest on a proof of God’s existence but on an assumption of God’s existence. That assumption proclaims itself in the very first words of the Torah: “In the beginning, God…
The Goal: A Better World
Why should we make that assumption? For me it comes down to one simple reason!
If we assume God exists and assume that God wants all of us to use our diverse talents to do good, then we shall create a better world for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. Though so much about God is way beyond my comprehension, this I believe with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might!