You Don’t Need to Believe to Be Jewish

Rosh HaShanah II, 5777

I want you to think for a moment:  If you had a pot in front of you and you put all of Judaism into that pot—Torah, community, mitzvoth, Tikkun Olam, kugel, God—and then you cooked it down to a thick concentrate, what would be left?  What ingredient makes us who we are and without which our Judaism would no longer be identifiable.  I am going to continue, but feel free to think about this and stay in the kitchen.

I had a professor in college who I loved.  He was the head of the Religious Studies Department and a Talmud scholar.  He was loved by cynics and the religious Christians from Central Illinois who filled his class and who relished in meeting, in the flesh, a real Jewish curmudgeon.  He was funny and empathetic, yet had a quick wit reserved for those who could not back up their valued opinions with fact.

He opened each of his courses on Judaism by saying, “You do not need to believe in God to be Jewish.”

This had a profound impact on the Judaism and the Jewish community I see and want to be a part of.  It did not affect or alter my faith, but it shifted and greatly expanded my understanding of what it means to be Jewish.  I think it was the beginning of my perspective and being able to expand beyond the particular Jewish setting that I grew up in.

When I have taught this in some my classes, I have been met with blank stares and questions by bewildered or even offended participants.  How could I say such a thing?  The rabbi does not believe in God?  If that is true, then why are we here?  All fair questions, but I think a bit misguided.  And as I have progressed from that freshman in Judaism 101 to a third-year rabbi, it rings truer every Shabbat and with every interaction I have here.  I believe in God, and that faith, while constantly being challenged, is solid.  But that does not mean it always will nor does it mean yours should.  And returning to the kitchen, we need to answer why we are here if God has already been boiled out of that pot.

What is Judaism if it can be practiced free of a divine presence?  Unequivocally, it is about making meaning.  And for me, the lone ingredient left standing in that saucepan is mitzvoth—the commandments.

Too often we think we have been told by the Torah, by religious leaders, or by philosophers that faith must come first.  That is false and not the case in Judaism.  Obviously it can be, and that is wonderful.  But if you do not believe at 40/50/60 years old, then it is time to no longer use that as an excuse to keep Jewish practice at arm’s reach.  Being Jewish is about the regimen of living out your Judaism with intention, with a Jewish intention or literally Halacha (Jewish law)—it guides our way through life.

The Talmud begins by asking the question of when to recite the Shema, not why.  The Talmud is not discussing what our intention must be when we recite this declaration of faith but simply when.  Na’aseh v’nishma, just do it (which is on our ark behind me).  The Talmud teaches that it is better to do a mitzvah for the wrong reason than not to do it at all.

I was told a story of a Rabbi who was asked, “Why should I wear tefillin?”  His response, “Wear it every day for a year and then ask me.”  It is the better answer to the question that I fielded every summer in discussion groups at Camp Ramah, “If I find going shopping relaxing, then why is this a violation of Shabbat?”  Shabbat is Shabbat; in order to fully understand it, it must be lived in a genuine way.  And let me be clear, that may mean reading at home, listening with your family to This American Life, sitting on the beach in Michigan, or going to shul.  But it must be lived with sincerity and purposeful intention—and before you can get to any kind of intention, you just gotta try it.

When something is important in Judaism, it uses the language of halacha;  the perceived importance of life is encoded in the language of law.  But, if we do not see ourselves as a halachic person, we then discard the practice and we neglect the possibility that it was getting at a truth.  Yet we do not do this as Americans!  We trust that the laws are there for our own good.  We trust that driving 25 mph on a side street is safer than the 65 of the highway, even though it is inconvenient.  So what is holding us back?

There are many reasons, but perhaps most prominent is the fear of being exposed, the fear of looking parochial or backwards.  Before we can do anything, before we can get to a place of meaning, we need to get past the feeling that these laws are archaic and were created by hall monitors looking to bust us for minor infractions.  They were not.  Certainly some no longer work, but there is no way to know that if you do not engage with the system.  The only way to learn how to swim is by jumping in.  No one learns how to swim by slowly wading into the pool by the stairs.  The first task here today is get beyond the fear, head out onto the halachic dance floor, and not worry that you will be doing the dance wrong or look silly for doing it right.

Mitzvoth were put in place, first in the Torah but then in earnest by the Rabbis in the Talmud.  Why?  Do we think that they wanted to create a system that mandated the proper way to tie your shoes?  You cannot cook on Shabbat, so do you think they cared what kind of hot plate you used to keep your food warm?  No!  What they cared about was that you did them.  We make fun of law, especially Jewish law when we are learning it before we are in it—it seems funny from the outside.  But what if the Rabbis had not dealt with the nitty gritty and simply said, “Be a good person”?  What would happen then?  We would, literally and figuratively, be tripping all over the place and our food would be cold on Shabbat.  Have you ever seen a cold matzo ball soup, when it is all congealed?  It is not something that brings sanctity to your table.

The next thing that stands as a stumbling block as we blindly search for meaning is where I started—it is God.  Why observe the mitzvoth if you do not believe in God?  My response is, who cares if you believe or not!  How many in here believe in God?  How many not?  Let me tell you, each of you counts in a minyan, and the authors of our laws knew that!  We lose track of the importance the mitzvoth can bring to our lives or, worse, we may have never allowed them to gain traction in our lives.  And this happens because of the word hiyuv/obligation and what that word conjures up in our minds.

Hiyuv is the idea that every Jew is obligated to keep the mitzvoth.  But what is solidified in law, what we mistake as hiyuv is not the obligation to observe them; it is, rather, the system’s messenger.  We get confused by the scary teacher, the mean-spirited rabbi, a patriarchal figure wagging its finger and we think that is the system.  But we must know that it is what that finger was trying to get you to do.  Belief or even belonging is not the incentive; it is that it will make your life richer and better.  It is hard, perhaps impossible, to understand if you do not do it.

The mitzvoth are countercultural, their incentive is not intuitive.  Perhaps for our ancestors God’s finger wagging in your face was all of the system they needed.  But we have moved beyond that, permanently.  There is no turning back, but we cannot allow ourselves to close the book on mitzvoth.  We have to rid ourselves of the towering figure standing in front of us telling us we are doing it wrong.

How many people’s Judaism is held in check?  Your Judaism held in a mitzvah-observing purgatory because you cannot get that presence out of your head—that image that kept meaning at bay, the idea that has kept you from believing?

How many of you kiss your partner before you go to bed or say "I love you" when getting off the phone with a loved one?  Or, more extreme, why do we remain faithful in our relationships?  Is it because a piece of paper from the state or one signed by two rabbis says you have to?  No!  You kiss your partner goodnight and remain faithful not because you are obligated, even when you are, but because you want to.  That is a part of the system of love, and it was codified that way because it makes sense and love is the motivating factor—not your Ketubah.  And we need to trust that a better life is the motivating factor with observance.  Mistaking the finger for the insight is the misconception we all have; it is the misconception of God in Judaism.  We are Jewish because we were born Jewish or went to the mikveh—our Judaism is not affected by faith or even practice.

Let me tell you a story about a family friend, Eddie.  Eddie has a little brother, and they used to go to the local pool when they were young.  Eddie would jump in and swim, all the while his brother would stand on the side.  He would try to psyche himself up, and Eddie would encourage him; but before they knew it, Memorial Day was now staring down Labor Day.  Finally after assuring his brother that he would catch him, that he would not let go, that it was shallow, and that he would be ok, his brother jumped in.  Eddie's brother emerged from under the water and what did he say?  “It has a bottom!”

So many of us go through life not trusting what we can see and never getting to a place of trusting what we cannot see.  Of course the pool had a bottom.  We all need someone to push or pull us in.  We need someone to shake the fear out of us, to shake the fear of looking silly or hypocritical.  We are all inconsistent and hypocritical in life; why stop with Judaism?  What will serve as the push you need to recognize the magical insight of observing mitzvoth?  If God is not the push and we do not feel God’s pull, what will it take for you?  My absolute goal for this sermon is that you to go home today and say kiddush.  It is not mumbo jumbo; it is actually consecrating the day.  It is honoring that this meal is different than the one you had last week.  Think about saying the Birkat HaMazon/blessing after you eat—say all of its blessings or just start by reflecting on how thankful you are for that meal.

I want to challenge each of you to do a new mitzvah every day—the stranger or more nonsensical the better.  When you find the one that works, keep doing it.  The mitzvoth are simply another form of belief.  It is second naiveté, but we mistake the next stage of faith as arriving at a more “mature faith.”  But that is wrong.  That next stage’s goal should not be about finding God, it should be about finding meaning, adding the essence of Jewish practice into your life, so that each day has a little more meaning.  Then you may find God or you may not.  But you can look back and realize that your life is more whole.

I have the convenient and unfortunate pleasure of living with my editor.  I get in bed each night with the person wielding the red pen.  Ilyssa, upon reading my first draft of this sermon, had many bolded sections that scowled, “Who cares!”  I am used to this strong voice; it appears on many, if not all of my sermons.  But this time she was not simply saying that this was irrelevant to my thesis or that this section was not adding anything substantial to the conversation I was trying to initiate.  But she was also speaking to those I was attempting to bring along for support.  She crossed out Buber, who taught  I and Thou, put an X through Soloveitchik's Halachic Man, and a fat line through Heschel’s God in Search of Man.  And of course, she was right.  No amount of scholarly or foundational support was or is going to make a difference here.  This sermon would fall flat if its only goal was to disabuse you of an idea that may have seemed foreign before—Judaism is simply not a religion that is concerned with belief.  Nor is it a religion to be practiced merely as an intellectual movement.

The point of this sermon is to tell you that the only way to understand Judaism is to wear its clothes and walk in its shoes.  Being more thoughtful about eating (keeping kosher), physically and mentally refraining from work for 25 hours each week will, undoubtedly, make your life better.  But so does putting on the leather straps of tefillin in the morning.  You need to trust the mitzvoth that are low-hanging fruit on the tree of meaning and also that those apples in hard-to-reach corners of the tree that are so easy, so convenient to skip over, will add flavor and sweetness to your life.

Judaism does, indeed, have a bottom.  Some of us, who may or may not have believed in God for a long time, have, made applesauce with the mitzvoth.  Push yourself beyond the comfort you feel standing in the halachic pool and make your way toward the deep end.  Some of us have sat on the edge with our feet barely grazing the water.  Jump in.  Do not let belief, hypocrisy, or the fear of making a mistake hold you back.

Do a new mitzvah every day, write it down and come back to me.  It is not trivial, and no amount of doing it will become trivial.  But you have to trust me, you have to trust that the system will work.  And I am betraying a future sermon here, but what will happen is that one thing you do will stick and that one mitzvah will become a second one.  And, I hope you can leave here today asking yourself, what would my life look like if I did that one mitzvah?

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf