Guest Blog Post: God is Irrelevant

NASA image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the Helix Nebula, NGC 7293, sometimes referred to as the “Eye of God” nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, and C.R. O’Dell (Vanderbilt University)

It never fails.

I’m teaching a Torah class or another Jewish studies class, and, because it seems appropriate, I bring God into the conversation, seeking a response from my students, an expression of belief, a question, anything. Instead, inevitably, heads begin turning downward or upward, or sideways, and eyes go dull. Silence fills the Zoom universe (lately the environment of necessity). Once I even brought up the subject of the Master of the Universe in an informal ma’ariv service and received the same silent treatment. When I queried my fellow davveners’ understanding of the Eternal, one member of the group said that he believed that God was a personal matter, one he preferred not to speak about with others.

Occasionally, as happened recently when I raised the issue on a Shabbat Torah study class, one of my congregants delivered a familiar lecture to the effect that God has become irrelevant. One can be an ethical person, my congregant said, without recourse to God, so of what value is God?  Noting that he is a regular attendee at my Torah class, he added that he comes to Torah study for the opportunity to study Bible as literature not for “religious” reasons.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m delighted that he comes.

But I’m unhappy that he thinks so little about God that he can’t see beyond what he perceives are the similarities of basic liberal ethics and what Jewish ethics teaches (which, by the way isn’t true). More, far more, the meaning of God, the topic and the actual Being, extends well beyond the ethical, important as the Jewish tradition understands the ethical to be.

That same congregant reminded me how during my Kol Nidre sermon, when I asserted God’s existence (something I thought appropriate on Kol Nidre), I confessed to a certain theological ambiguity. I read Martin Buber, I said in that sermon, and I find his theology helpful. But then I read Mordecai Kaplan, whose theology is at odds with Buber, and I find him helpful, too. The same with Soloveitchik (who’s Orthodox). This shows, my congregant said, how if I cannot settle on one view theology is irrelevant even to me.

To an extent, my interlocutor has a point. Theology is incredibly varied. This does not render theology irrelevant, just as the variety, say, of theories of democracy does not make thinking about democracy irrelevant. I will grant that the wrestling match that seeks an understanding of God constitutes a pursuit of uncertainties. This, however, does not render theology useless, and it surely does not render God irrelevant.

All of those faces looking away from me when I bring God into the discussion is not, I think, a matter of theology fatigue. It is, rather, a long developing modern Jewish agnosticism that I frequently encounter. Jews have long become uncomfortable thinking and speaking of God, and we have long become comfortable packing the Master of the Universe in a box and placed the box in the rear of our intellectual closets. And along with this loss comes a loss in the authority granted to the Torah, which is, after all, the Jews’ primary connection with God. We’ve lost a great deal to our agnosticism.

I’ve long held that the struggle to find God is a worthy effort, perhaps even the worthiest of efforts, even if that effort leads the mind to fluctuate among the many models of the Divine that Jewish thinkers have crafted. Entering into that struggle takes an a priori commitment to enter into the struggle. I know that sounds circular, and perhaps it is. Stepping into the search for God requires an openness, and openness requires leaving agnosticism behind, at least for a while. Opening that door requires a powerful mental effort.

I do not here intend to construct an argument as to why I think a world in which we seek the Divine is a richer and more meaningful world than a world absent of the divine. That’s perhaps for another time. Here I wish only to assert what’s been my companion now for a shocking number of decades: An assumption that God exists, and that reaching out to this Being is an ultimately worthwhile endeavor. Would that I could convince my Shabbat morning interlocutor of the importance of this task.

About Rabbi Phil Cohen 3 Articles
Rabbi Phil Cohen, Ph.D., received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. He earned a Ph.D. in Jewish thought from Brandeis University, and Master of Fine Arts degree from Spalding University in Louisville. Rabbi Cohen is married to Betsy Gamburg and is Elly’s, and Talia’s father, and Ava Ruth’s saba. He is a strong advocate of Israel, loves theology, Bible, Jewish History, exploring interfaith relations, and reading and writing fiction. He has just completed his first novel, Desolation Row: A Nick Bones mystery, which, by its title, suggests another might be on the way. Rabbi Cohen resides in Greensboro, NC, with Betsy and Maggy, their rescued greyhound, and travels regularly to Albany, GA, where he serves as rabbi for Temple B’nai Israel.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you Rabbi. This morning, just before I read your piece in the JSA email, I read my daily email from Matthew Fox. (I read them in order of arrival) Fox quoted Nicholas of Cusa’s ecumenism: “Humanity will find that it is not a diversity of creeds, but the very same creed which is everywhere proposed.
    There cannot but be one wisdom….Humans must therefore all agree that there is but one most simple wisdom whose power is infinite; and everyone, in explaining the intensity of this beauty, must discover that it is a supreme and terrible beauty.”
    Also, I believe ‘the search for God’ is not solely an intellectual discussion, rather a knowing from the heart.
    Thank you again for your sharing.

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