5 Minutes of Rav Kook at the Conservative Yeshiva (Part 4)

Rabi Kook (Harav Kuk} street, Jerusalem - Old ...

Rabi Kook (Harav Kuk} street, Jerusalem – Old Quarter “Beit David” in Jerusalem (Named after the philanthropist David Reyes). House of Rav Kook and first location of Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the second paragraph of Zironim (Chapter 1), Rav Kook says as follows:

The place where we may find peace is only in God. God, however, transcends the existing world, making it impossible for us to grasp any aspect of Him in feeling or thought. This makes Him, as far as we are concerned, nonexistent, and the spirit cannot find contentment in what does not exist. It is for this reason that wise men who devote themselves to the quest for God are, for the most part, spiritually weary. When the soul aspires to the most luminous light it cannot be content with that light which shines in the quality of justice in the best of good deeds, or in the measure of truth in the most precise body of knowledge or in the attribute of beauty in the most exalted of visions. It then sees the world as trivialized. The soul has become so ascendant that the entire world, its material as well as its spiritual manifestations, appears to it as an imprisonment gripping us in its choking atmosphere. Such men seek what is beyond their reach, what, in their condition, does not appear to exist, and to change the nonexistent to an existent is even beyond the will to entertain. It is for this reason that there is often a weakening of the will as well as of the other life-forces among people whose inner disposition is directed toward the quest for God. (trans. by Bokser)

אבל האלהים הלא למעלה מכל המציאות אשר יוכל להכנס בקרבנו ממנו איזה רגש ורעיון הוא, וכל מה שהוא למעלה מכל רגש ורעיון בנו הוא לערכנו אין ואפס ובאין ואפס לא תוכל הדעת לנוח. על כן ימצאו על פי רוב תלמידי חכמים מבקשי אלהים יגעים ועיפים ברוח. כשהנשמה הומה לאור היותר בהיר אינה מסתפקת באותו האור הנמצא מהצדק גם במעשים היותר טובים, לא באותו האור הנמצא מהאמת אפילו בלמודים היותר ברורים, ולא בהיופי – אפילו בחזיונות היותר מפוארים, אז מתנול העולם בעיניה: היא כל כך מתרחבת בקרבה, עד שהעולם כולו עם כל גשמיותו ורוחניותו גם יחד, עם כל גילוייו החמריים והרוחניים, נדמה לה לבי עקתא ואוירו נעשה לה מחנק. הם מבקשים מה שהוא למעלה מכחם, מה שהוא לעומתם אין, ולהפך אין ליש אין יכולת גם ברצון לרצות, על כן יחלש לפעמים כח הרצון וכל עז החיים באנשים אשר דרישת אלהים היא מגמתם הפנימית.

In the first paragraph in this chapter (that we studied yesterday), he said that only in the “divine air” may the soul find peace. In this paragraph, he presents the problem that the rest of this chapter deals with: God transcends everything we know, and that which transcends everything that we know is, for us, non-existent. If so, how can the soul find peace?

Without an answer to this question, says Rav Kook, the soul grows weary and grey. Paradoxically, it is specificially those people who seek God most who become most lost and depressed. Since they seek a higher good, something so sublime that it transcends the world, they find no delight in the good and beautiful things of the world. They seek a good so perfect that they can’t see the good in the world, and since they can’t grasp the transcendent God, they fall into the greyness of depression.

The solution, says Rav Kook (in paragraph 3), is to recognize that all the good and beautiful things in the world are partial revelations of the transcendent God. Love, beauty, creativity, justice and so forth are “revealed divinity” (elohut). By grasping firm onto what we know is good in our concrete experience, in spite of all imperfections, we can feel our way towards their transcendent source in God.

In our earliar discussions, we tried to approach what Rav Kook means by “revealed divinity” and its transcendent source in God. See our discussions of paragraph three and paragraph four for details.


5 Minutes of Rav Kook at the Conservative Yeshiva (Part 3)

In Paragraph 1 of Zironim (in part 1 and part 2 we addressed paragraphs 3 and 4), Rav Kooks says as follows:

paragraph 1

אי אפשר למצא מעמד מבוסס לרוח כי אם באויר האלהי. הידיעה, ההרגשה, הדמיון והחפץ והתנועות הפנימיות והחיצוניות שלהם, כולם מזקיקים את בני האדם שיהיו אלהיים דוקא. אז ימצאו את מלואם, את יחושם השוה והמניח את הדעת. אם מעט פחות מגדולה זו יבקש לו האדם הרי הוא מיד טרוף כספינה המטורפת בים, גלים סוערים מתנגדים זה לזה ידריכוהו תמיד מנוחה, מגל אל גל יוטל ולא ידע שלו. אם יוכל לשקע באיזה רפש עבה של גסות הרוח ועביות ההרגשה, יצלח לו למעט את אור חייו לאיזה משך זמן, עד שבקרבו ידמה שכבר מצא מנוח. אבל לא יארכו הימים, הרוח יחלץ ממסגרותיו והטירוף הקלעי יחל את פעלו בכל תוקף.

מקום מנוחתנו הוא רק באלהים!

Rabbi Bokser translates Rav Kook as saying that we must live lives “oriented towards God”. Literally, Rav Kook wrote that we must live in “divine air”. What is this “divine air” that we must live in, if we are to find balance and peace in life?

In paragraph 3, we saw that all the things that we know are ultimately good, like love and beauty, are “revealed divinity”. In paragraph 4, we talked about how these things appear to us as bigger and more important than we are. They are bigger in that we feel how they transcend our understanding. And they are more important in that we feel (and judge) that being faithful to them is more important even than our own lives.

The way that things like love and  beauty transcend us and our understanding creates a sort of halo around them. It’s like we can see what they are, but we can also see that there’s something mysterious and enthralling and unattainable about them. I think that this “halo” is part of what Heschel means by radical amazement in the face of the sublime. Revealed divinity is concrete and real, but when we encounter it, we see that is framed by a glory and mystery that draws us close but which we cannot grasp.


I think that that halo of the mysterious sublime, in the face of which we feel radical amazement, is part of what Rav Kook means here by “divine air”. And he says that our desire to cleave to revealed divinity, and to be swallowed up in the divine air, is basic to what we are as people. He says that in our most basic functioning as human beings – knowing, feeling, imagining, wanting – we seek revealed divinity and its transcendent halo. When we turn our face away from these, we loose connection with the ultimate source of the meaning of our lives, and become “like a ship tossed about at sea”, without an anchor in the revealed divinity which gives direction to our lives.

5 Minutes on Rav Kook at the Conservative Yeshiva (Part 2)

A. I. Kook (d. 1935), Chief Rabbi of Palestine

A. I. Kook (d. 1935), Chief Rabbi of Palestine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the end of paragraph 4 of Zironim (Chapter 1) which we discussed in Part 1, Rav Kook says the following thing:

ולפרקים תפקדנו בברק עליון מזיו של מעלה מאור עליון שמעל כל רעיון ומחשבה. השמים נפתחים ואנו רואים מראות אלהים, – אבל אנו יודעים שזהו מצב ארעי לנו, הברק יחלף והננו יורדים לשבת עוד לא בפנים ההיכל כי אם בחצרות השם

At times, moreover, we are privileged with a flash emanating from the higher radiance, from that higher light which transcends all thought. The heavens open for us and we see a vision of God. But we know that this is only a temporary state, the flash will pass and we will descend to dwell once again not inside the palace, but only in the courts of the Lord. (Trans. B. Bokser)

I’m sure that Rav Kook had many experiences of God that I can’t fathom, and that he means by these words many things about which I don’t know anything. However, I think he also means here things that all of us have experienced and that we do know about.

Years ago, I tried to make sense of an experience that I’ve had when looking at my wife’s face. Its happened to me that I’ve looked at her face, and all of a sudden I’m so enthralled by how beautiful she is that I can’t think. It’s like all of the beauty in the world, as well as my love for her and for my kids, and for the life that we’ve put together, well up at once and cause my brain to freeze.

I think of this as more or less what happens when I open too many hyperlinks in Firefox: there’s just more information than my computer can handle, and so it freezes. In that moment when the full meaning of my wife and family and life, and all the beauty and pleasure that I know, all come up at once before my eyes, my brain freezes because it just can’t handle it, my regular thoughts are shut out, and I see the meaning of my existence.

After trying to describe this experience in words, I ran into Abraham Maslow’s characterization of a “peak experience”. One of the things that he says is that in peak experiences, people feel like all the beauty and goodness that they know come together in one visual symbol for just a split second, and it just knocks them over. While I’m sure that Rav Kook meant lots of things by “the heavens opening up” that I don’t understand, I think he also means this kind of peak experience. What happened when my brain froze was that I saw, in my wife’s face, the face of God.

I think that everybody reading these words has had some variety of this experience. And thus we have all been inside “the palace” of God (as in the quote from Rav Kook above). At the end of the section, Rav Kook says that we don’t regularly live inside the palace, but rather just in the courtyards of God. That’s because we don’t live in peak experiences but rather in our day-to-day state of mind. But the Elohut, the absolute value, that wells up in those peak experiences, is what sustains us all the time. It is revealed Elohut that gives meaning and direction to our lives. That’s why, while we don’t live inside the palace, we live in the courtyard.

5 Minutes of Rav Kook at the Conservative Yeshiva (Part 1)

Notes on Rav Kook‘s Zironim (זרעונים)

Over the next month I’ll be giving a short talk on Rav Kook each morning when we begin studying in the beit midrash. I’m thinking through this material as I go and I’d love to hear what people think….

A Thirst For the Living God (צמאון לאל חי)

English trans. by Ben Zion Bokser.

I’ve changed the order of the text and skipped some sections.

Paragraph 3

image001 image002  Rav Kook gives a list of things in which elohut – divinity – is revealed: beauty, glory, consciousness, life, culture and state, the sea and the sky, thought, creativity, imagination, courage. What does it mean that these things reveal elohut? As we’ll see, for Rav Kook, elohut is the source of all good things. Every time we encounter something ultimately valuable, like life and love, we encounter a revelation of elohut.

In other places, Rav Kook explains that the reason that people so often confuse good with evil is due to the fact that the faculties that allow us to perceive elohut are often underdeveloped. Our lack of development – cognitive, rational, spiritual, moral, scientific, philosophical – distorts our perception of elohut and sends us in the wrong direction.

Paragraph 4image003

image004 Here Rav Kook describes elohut as like a great sea that’s far off in a distant land so that we can’t see or reach it, but which sends rivers of life, consciousness, beauty, justice and all the other good things into our lives.

In what way are these things like rivers flowing from an unknown sea? I think this image reflects the way we experience them. Love, beauty, justice etc. are like rivers because we draw from them the meaning of our lives; they irrigate and sustain us. And they flow from a great unknown sea because we feel that even as they are the reason we live we cannot fully understand or grasp them. They are both beyond our grasp and bigger and more important than we are. But even though we can’t see there, we can feel in what direction they point. They point at more perfect love, justice and beauty than we can know; they point our minds towards the place from which they appear. And so it’s like they are rivers that flow from a great mysterious sea. The image of the sea and the rivers is a metaphor. The thing itself is the way elohut functions in our minds.

Let’s conclude with the first sentence of paragraph 4 again. Rav Kook says that even though we can’t reach the great sea from which elohut flows, we want to: we want to be swallowed up into it, we want to be gathered to its light. We feel with our very being that in the place from which love, justice and beauty come, there is something more sublime than we can imagine. And we know that if we draw close, it touches and changes us, it draws us higher.

Bob Marley on the Zohar and Human Rights (from kehila medaberet)

Exodus by Psalmist Bob Marley

The Lyrics

Exodus: Movement of Jah people! Oh-oh-oh, yea-eah!
Men and people will fight ya down (Tell me why!)
When ya see Jah light. (Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!)
Let me tell you if you’re not wrong; (Then, why?)
Everything is all right.
So we gonna walk – all right! – through de roads of creation:
We the generation (Tell me why!)
(Trod through great tribulation) trod through great tribulation.

 How I hear the lyrics:

Jah People: “Jah” is “Yah” in Hebrew, one of the most sacred names of God. By “Jah People”, Marley means Rastafarians (and perhaps all humanity). In my head, “Jah People” refers both to my People Israel, and to the whole human race.

Jah Light: The light of God is transformative. You can’t be faithful to God and OK with the way the world is today. Humanity is in exile (just think of Syria). She must be protected and nurtured, as God commands, and that means shaking things up, and so people will “fight you down”.

the roads of creation: Religion deals with the big picture; it seeks to transform who we are as individuals, peoples and humanity – to turn us into higher creatures in the Image of God. That’s God’s purpose in creation.


Exodus, all right! Movement of Jah people!
Oh, yeah! O-oo, yeah! All right!
Exodus: Movement of Jah people! Oh, yeah!


Exodus, Movement: the world is broken and we often suffer as individuals: we have to move…we have to exodus Egypt…to move toward the Promised Land.

Yeah-yeah-yeah, well!
Uh! Open your eyes and look within:
Are you satisfied (with the life you’re living)? Uh!
We know where we’re going, uh!
We know where we’re from.
We’re leaving Babylon,
We’re going to our Father land.


 Look within…leaving Babylon. The stanza starts with the individual: are you who you want to be? (Good question for the high holidays!) It concludes with the story of a whole people (Jah People exiting Babylon and returning to Zion) . “Exile” and “Redemption” happen both in the lives of individuals (you and me) and in the histories of collectives (Jews, Africans…), and also in our psychological states (depression and anxiety vs. creativity and well-being.

2, 3, 4: Exodus: movement of Jah people! Oh, yeah!
(Movement of Jah people!) Send us another brother Moses!
(Movement of Jah people!) From across the Red Sea!
(Movement of Jah people!) Send us another brother Moses!
(Movement of Jah people!) From across the Red Sea!
Movement of Jah people!

Exodus, all right! Oo-oo-ooh! Oo-ooh!
Movement of Jah people! Oh, yeah!
Exodus! All right!
Exodus! Now, now, now, now!
Exodus! Oh, yea-ea-ea-ea-ea-ea-eah!
Exodus! All right!
Exodus! Uh-uh-uh-uh!

I love all the biblical imagery! Most of Marley’s images seem to be from the Hebrew Bible.

Move! Move! Move! Move! Move! Move!


Move! Move! Singing the song is praxis – it’s doing something – it’s casting a spell (or if you prefer: doing a meditation) to transform the self and the world, and maybe even to arouse divine forces (theurgy). In this way, the song is like the siddur and the Zohar.

Open your eyes and look within:
Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?
We know where we’re going;
We know where we’re from.
We’re leaving Babylon, y’all!


We’re going to our Father’s land.

Exodus, all right! Movement of Jah people!
Exodus: movement of Jah people!
Movement of Jah people!
Movement of Jah people!
Movement of Jah people!
Movement of Jah people!

Move! Move! Move! Move! Move! Move! Move!




Jah come to break downpression,
Rule equality,
Wipe away transgression,
Set the captives free.

Movement of Jah people…

Weekday Shacharit before the Amidah:

…[תשבחות] למלך א”ל חי וקים, רם ונשא, גדול ונורא, משפיל גאים ומגביה שפלים, מוציא אסירים, ופודה ענוים ועוזר דלים, ועונה לעמו – עם י”ה – בעת שועם אליו.

…[praises] to the rightful Sovereign, the living and enduring God – exalted and uplifted, great and awesome, Who humbles the haughty and lifts the lowly; frees the captives, liberates the oppressed, and helps the poor; Who answers God’s people – Jah People – when they turn to God.

(I hear:) The minimum standard for “human civilization”, for fulfilling our most basic moral responsibility before God, is protecting and nurturing all human beings through the global rule of law (as in mitsvat dinim, one of the seven Noachide commandments). Rule Equality.

Religious Imagination at Robinson’s Arch

Shalom! this was a short talk on religious imagination (it also relates to human rights theology) that I gave today at the Conservative Yeshiva Orientation at the Kotel. Any thoughts?


  • we’re about to begin a section of the prayers called “psukei dezimra” or verses of praise. this section evokes the beauty and majesty of the world in order to evoke our love of God – the creator of the world.
  • I think that an important part of the way this works, and the way prayer works altogether, involves developing our religious imaginations. our imagination is deeply tied to our emotions. and its through the combination of imagination and emotion that our prayer can really come alive.
  • so then an important question is – how can we develop our religious imaginations, and ignite our emotions, so that prayer comes alive? one way is through focusing on the power of words. words bring images and feelings to our minds. and these can animate our prayers, sort of like the way that a generator creates the electricity that animates all our computers and smart phones.
  • let’s take an example. in psalm 145 which falls in the middle of psukei dezimra, the one we usually call ashrei, words are used to describe God’s qualities. Here are four of them:
    • Hod – splendor
    • Malchut – sovereignty
    • Hesed – loving-kindness
    • Karov – intimately close
  • in order to feel the power of these words, they need to evoke powerful images and feelings inside you.
  • for example, right now, when I think of  hod – splendor – I think of the very place that we’re in. these grand and ancient stone walls seem to evoke something of the majesty and the mystery of the Temple that stood up there thousands of  years ago.
  • when I think of malchut, sovereignty or kingship, i think of the vision of the prophets for whom this city was home. they envisioned that the power of the divine presence in this spot – the temple in jerusalem – would rise up and flow forth onto the world, bringing justice for all humanity, freeing the slaves and protecting the weak and directing all people towards their higher selves.
  • and when I think of hesed, loving-kindness, I think of what the world might be like if the vision of the prophet’s came true, if the members of our species treated each like brothers and sisters and not like enemies.
  • and when I think of karov, I think of  how for thousands of years Jews, and Christians and Muslims, have come to this place to seek God – God who is the source of  Hod-splendor, and Hesed-loving-kindness and Malchut- sovereignty…they came here to seek the intimacy with God expressed by the word karov, and which gave their lives purpose and meaning. and I think of how I seek that intimacy, too, with the people that I love, and with the God that I serve.
  • those are some of the thoughts and feelings that these four words evoke in me. and since those thoughts and feelings are powerful for me, when I focus on them like I should, then my prayer comes alive. at those moments, its like the words of the prayer carry me long, I don’t have to work in order to say them, the words themselves do all the work.
  • now, in preparation for psukei dezimrah and reciting the ashrei yoshvei psalm, I’d like to invite you to explore the ideas and images that these words evoke in your religious imagination. so what I’ll do is to say each word, and then pause, and I suggest that you just let your imagination do what it wants. then, when you say ashrei later on, you can draw on some of those ideas and feelings if you want.
  • Hod – spendor
  • Malchut- sovereignty
  • Hesed-loving-kindness
  • Karov – intimately close

You Already Know that God Exists – Take Two (Includes God the Story!)

You Already Know that God Exists (Second Version)

This talk was given at the New North London Synagogue, Sivan 5773/2013.

The point of talking about God

As a person who is very focused on theology, and who is often talking about theology, I’m often told that theology, particularly for Judaism, is not important. People say that it that there’s no point in asking whether God exists, and whether God created the world or gave the Torah, because these are questions that nobody has any good answer for and really are just a waste of time.

Now, the fact is that I think that there is a lot of truth in the claim that theology is not important.  First of all, it is often the case that discussions about God are both endless and pointless. Even more importantly, theology cannot replace religious study, discipline and practice.  What really determines whether our Torah lives are powerful and transformative, or boring and superficial, is not what we say about God, but how we live Torah – how much we invest in it, to what extent we see the world through its lens.

But its here – in relation to trying to live a powerful Jewish religious life, that I think we begin to see where theology can be quite important. Because the stuff of Jewish life – the words of our prayers and the character of our symbols and rituals – is all organized around something or somebody called “God”. We talk to and about God constantly, and in our rituals we act out stories involving what God means to us.

And even while we do all that, talk and sing and do rituals involving God, I think that for a lot of liberal Jews, God is an extremely dubious entity. First of all, it’s not clear what the word God means, if anything. Second of all, if we think about the kinds of things that other people mean when they say God, not only does it seem quite likely that God does not exist, but, much worse than that, we’re probably all way better off with out Him, May He Be Blessed. Because He often sounds like a guy you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, particularly, if you are a gay or a woman or just significantly unorthodox in one way or another – even Masorti God forbid!! And so while liberal Jews often have a warm corner somewhere in their heart for God, none the less, God doesn’t seem cut out for the role that Jewish life wants to give him.

And here is where theology becomes, I think, critically important. Because if what we mean when we say the word “God” is some vague combination of something that doesn’t exist and something that we’re not sure that we like, even if we are also a bit sentimental about Him, then Jewish prayer and ritual doesn’t make – at least as I see things – a whole lot of sense. If I am to talk about God all day, then I want to know that what I mean by God is worthy of my service and devotion.

Now, if there were really no good answers to the big questions that we have about God, then the fact that theology is important for religious life wouldn’t make any difference. However, I think that there are, in fact, perfectly good and solid answers to at least my questions about God.

To begin with, I think we expect both too much and too little from our idea of God. We expect too little from our idea of God when we are willing to apply this word to things that we think are immoral or untrue. If you think that the historical author of some text was a narrow minded racist, then the voice of that text cannot be God. The word God is not a proper name, but rather a condensed description. It means something like “that which I recognize as worthy of my service and devotion”. If you say something like, “perhaps God wrote this text, but I think its message is immoral”, then you are effectively saying, “This thing that is worthy of my service and devotion is not worthy of my service and devotion”. Either the thing you’re talking about is worth your most absolute faithfulness, or the thing you are talking is not God.

But at the same time, I think we liberal Jews often expect too much from our idea of God. We sort of expect a God who will blow us over and fulfill all of our most fantastical desires, sort of like what love looks like in Holywood movies. Now, I’m not saying that I don’t want that too, but I don’t need that in order for my prayers and rituals to make sense. What I need for the words of my prayers to be true is not a God who will provide me with eternal ecstasy but who is worthy of my service and worship and who motivates me to live a deeper Torah life. If I look at the world in the right way, I think that I know for a fact that this God exists.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I always daven well or perform the rituals of Torah life with adequate intention. But the reason I often fail at these things is for the same reasons that I’m often not the best father or husband. Just like I know what kind of father I don’t want to be, and then go on to be exactly that father too much of the time, I often don’t invest the necessary investment in Torah life. It’s not hard to pray because the prayers are talking about a God that I don’t believe in, but rather because it’s hard to focus my mind. This brings us back to the fact that theology can’t replace religious discipline and practice. But theology, if it’s done right, can help support the necessary investment in Torah that makes Torah life something that brings us closer to God.

With all that said, I’ll now try to tell you something about what I mean by God. But before I do, I need to make crystal clear what my goal is. My goal is to learn to think about God in a way that brings Jewish prayer and ritual alive; that transforms the practices of Torah life into technologies which bring me closer to the God that I really do love with all my heart, and soul and everything that I’ve got. If the way I think about God is different than my ancestors, that’s fine with me. I’m not looking to believe what somebody before me believed, but rather to be true to what I honestly recognize as worthy of my absolute service and faithfulness in a way that jives with the Torah life that I lead.

I’ll try to express my idea of God in two different ways. First, I’ll present my idea of God in a rather abstract way. As this way of talking doesn’t necessarily work for everybody, I’ll also present my idea through a story. Afterwards I hope we’ll have time for discussion.

The One, Logos and the Good

The One – The One is the point of singularity, and the nothingness before the big bang, and everything in the universe, and everything that ever was, and ever will be. The One contains all – the One Is, Was and Will be Forever. There is nothing, ultimately, except the One.

Logos. Logos is the essential nature, or essence, or logic, of all things. It governs how matter and energy emerged from singularity, and contains physics, chemistry, biology, the life of the mind – and everything else that exists. All things manifest the logos of the One. Nothing stands outside it.

The Good – The Good is what I know as worthy of my service and faithfulness. It is the person I seek to be and the ideals that I try to live by. Examples of the good are love, justice and freedom.

The “One” and “Logos” are not truth claims but rather are definitional. They represent a way of looking at the world and a way of defining one’s vocabulary. The idea of the Good, however, does involve some quite controversial truth claims (as well as a way of looking at things), and I’ll try to explain this now.

It’s very fashionable in our day to talk as if we don’t know what the good is. We say things like, “how do I  know that love is really good or that justice is really binding?”. My answer to this is that I know that love is good and that justice is binding with the same surety that I know that I exist. The reason for this is that the knowledge that love is good – and that I should seek love with my family and friends – and the justice is binding – that I must seek justice for human beings – is among the central building blocks of my identity. If there were no such things as love and justice, then I – as I know myself and my life – would not exist. I would be an incoherent pile of bits of pieces w/o direction and w/o identity. I know that love and justice are real because they are critical parts of my self, which exists. And I think that this line argument is true about everybody in this room.

Now, one might say, perhaps you’re right that your idea of love and justice are part of what you call your “self”, but who says that the self exists? Maybe the “self” is an illusion? In fact, brain science teaches us that the self is no more than a pattern of highly complex information processing, like on a computer. They teach us that we are simply bio-robo computers, and what we experience as our “selves” is just what its like to be a bio central processing unit from the inside! And since my self  – my I – is just what its like to be a bio-robo computer from the inside, love and justice are just part of that same subjective experience!

The truth is, that’s exactly how I think. While I don’t really know any science, I do think of us as bio-robo computers, and I expect that my soul or self, and the things I know to be good like love and justice, are just what its like to be a human bio-robo computer from the inside. The part I disagree with is that any of this makes the self, love and justice less real. 

In fact, I think that to argue that our selves – with their building blocks of love and justice – are not “real”, that they do not “exist”, is thoroughly irrational. There are no functional people who live or think as if they do not exist. In regular language, to say that something is not real, that it does not exist, means that it has no impact on my life. I can’t meaningfully say, “phenomenon X, which does not exist, has a huge impact on me”. And for that reason it simply makes no sense to say that the self, love and justice “do not exist”. Words like “real” and “exists”, rationally speaking, must be defined so as to include the fundamental elements of my experience. I think William James called this approach “radical empiricism”.

I think we sometimes talk as if the self “doesn’t exist” because we want to limit words like “real” and “exists” to physical objects and mathematical truths. But the real world – the one that we live in – is not constituted by matter and logic alone. My self is part of the world that I know. And love and justice and the other things I know as good are part of what my self is.

In this sense, at my very essence, I am Will, I am telos, I am an arrow that points at the good. That is the reality of what the One has made me (through physics, biology, evolution etc.). And since my self and my knowledge of the good, like all things, manifest the logos of the One, I know that the very same force which creates black holes and distant galaxies also commands me to the seek the good. The One not only creates the world, but reveals the good. If I take the Torah as the name for the good, then the One not only separated the waters from the earth and hung the luminaries the sky, but also gave us the Torah, revealing the Word of God to Israel for all time.

I’ll conclude the abstract discussion with one last abstraction. Does it make sense to pray to the One? This would seem to depend on another question: is the One free, like a person, or necessary, like the laws of physics? If you say that the One is fixed and necessary like the laws of physics, then I ask you – how did it come to be you? And if you say that the One is like you are – then how can physics be true? It seems clear that the One is both free and not free, personal and not personal. (By the way, I think that’s true of human beings, too). And so when we seek to connect to God personally, we should talk to God. And when we seek to understand the material universe, we should study physics.

The Story

In the beginning, there was the big bang. And before the big bang, there was nothing. Its not that there wasn’t anything, it’s just that there was no “there”, and so we don’t have words to talk about it. And then, somehow, from that nothingness, emerged a point of singularity. The entire universe, that was later to unfold in the patterns of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology, somehow existed as one unified point – without dimensions and without distinctions, in that point of singularity, almost 14 billion years ago.

And then matter and energy, and later planets and stars and solar systems, emanated forth and became the universe. A long time later, roughly 4 billion years ago, life emerged on our planet and began to evolve until, according to some, homo sapiens appeared some 200,000 years ago. And we were, as Yuval Harrari puts it, rather mediocre mammals smack in the middle of the food chain. But then, roughly 70,000 years ago, we started to talk – and not just to talk – but to create a whole labyrinth of symbolic and linguistic meanings that gave us an evolutionary advantage that evidently put an end to all other hominoid species, and shot us – homo sapiens – right up to the top of the food chain.

Roughly 10,000 years ago, we underwent the agricultural revolution. The new ability to cultivate mass amounts of food caused much suffering, but also pushed human culture forward. Within five thousand years, we began to write. And then, about 2,500 years after that, or roughly 500 BCE, a massive cultural shift takes place in humanity – a shift in which human beings all across the planet – from Greece and Israel to India and China, start to think more about spirit than about matter.

Robert Bella, a well respected sociologist of religion, points out that the religions of this age – from the Bible to the Buddha, emphasize the need to transcend the body and the material world and to live in the realm of the spirit. He suggests that the depth and complexity of humanity’s symbolic and linguistic structures enabled people for the first time to live in a world of non-material meanings. He suggests that this is parallel to the stage in which a young child stops thinking of her body as herself, and begins to think of herself as constituted by her role in the family, her membership in her tribe, and other non-material things. At that stage, when the child says “I”, she no longer means her physical body, but rather a whole host of meanings that only exist in the world of language and symbols. So roughly at 500 BCE, says Robert Bella, when people thought about themselves, they didn’t identify themselves just with their bodies, but started to perceive their very existence as a matter of non material spiritual things.

And so it was that humanity moved upstairs, as it were, and transcended mere physical existence. And on that second floor, in a realm of spirit and language and symbols, we could hear God – the One – speak for the first time. And that voice of spirit, love and justice that we heard must have existed, at least in potential, in the nothingness before the big bang, and in the point of singularity, and in the matter and energy of the universe before the emergence of life, because everything that is came from what was, and all things are manifestations of the logos of the One.

Before the advent of a species that could live in the realm of spirit, that potential – the potential for consciousness and for transcendence and for higher morality, that potential hovered over the deep in the absolute darkness. It was the spirit of God as described in Genesis before creation. And it could only come into the light, and become revealed, when there existed a species able to see that beyond the physical world there is a world of higher meanings – like truth, love, justice and beauty – and that we can live for those meanings, and in fact we must live for those meanings, simply because absolute value requires absolute faithfulness.

At Har Sinai, we were confronted with the undeniable truth that the true meaning of our lives lies beyond material things and narrow interests. Having climbed up onto the second floor, into the realm of spirit and symbol, the roof that housed our world opened up, and what we saw above was not the physical heavens but the possibility of transcendence. And so for the first time God could speak to us, and we could hear God’s voice. And God offered us the path to our redemption, and we set out on that path.

Today, 2,500 years later, we still seek to walk that path. When we do Torah right, Torah is the path to our higher humanity. Our response to the voice of God that we heard, and that we hear, is to seek to be higher humanity, as individuals and as collectives, as Jews and as human beings. Every individual and every nation, has something unique to contribute to the unfolding of God’s spirit in the universe and in humanity. Torah is our unique path and identity, it is our part, as the People Israel, in pushing our species towards greater and higher things.

You Already Know that God Exists


You Already Know that God Exists

This is a Sicha that I gave at the Conservative Yeshiva this week. I’d love to hear what you think!!


OK, what I’m going to argue during the next twenty minutes is that you already know that God exists. That is say that you already believe in the existence of things that if you group them together as a set and call them “God”, then you’ll know – since they exist – that God exists. In a sense, this is just about defining the word “God”. If we define this word – the word “God” – as referring to something that we know exists, than “God” exists. If the universe is part of God, like I think the Zohar says, than you know for sure that God exists, because the universe exists.

But it’s not enough to be able to define God into existence. The following example makes it clear we playing with definitions is not enough to make God real. I can decide that trees are part of something larger called “oobleck”, and then I can say that oobleck exists. That is to say, if trees are oobleck, and trees exist, then oobleck exists. And this shows us that just defining God as something real is not enough because it can be trivial. We do need to define God into existence, but we also need to feel that what we call God is worthy of that name. God stands at the center of our religious lives. As religious Jews, we say all sorts of things about God all day long. Those things only make sense if God is not only real, but also vitally important, in fact, much of what we say about God only makes sense if God is the most important thing in our lives.

So when I say that you already know that God exists, I mean to say that you already believe in things which are not only real, but are also vitally important; Things that are in fact the most important things in your lives. That is to say: My argument is that you already believe in things that are not only real, but are worthy of being called God. It feels right to call them God. They are able to carry the weight of that name.

What are these things? I can’t of course define them or make a definitive list because language can’t really capture stuff like this. But the bottom line is that I’ll say that God must be the source or the essence of at least three things: the universe, love and justice. I don’t mean to say that God isn’t also lots of other things. But this is the minimum. Why does God need to be the source or the essence of these three things? I’ll try to explain that now.

I think that God needs to be certain things in order for what I say in prayer to make sense. The things we say about God throughout the Siddur, in psukei dezimra and in the shma and in the amidah, assume a lot of things about whatever is referred to by the word “God”. I want to point out two things that are clear from the Siddur. The first thing is that whatever God is, God is worthy of our absolute faithfulness. We say that we know and that we feel in our deepest selves that the right thing to do is to dedicate our lives to God. That’s really a very dramatic thing to say. We say we seek to learn God’s word all day and all night יומם ולילה. So whatever God is, God must be critically important and worthy of all that. The second thing that’s clear in the Siddur is that God is as at least as awesome and as fascinating as the universe. The Bible and the rabbis say that all the power and glory of the universe are the power and glory of God.

Now, is it possible that the authors of the Siddur believed in the existence of something, something worthy of faithfulness and as awesome as the universe, that they called “God”, and that I don’t believe exists? Sure, that’s possible. To some extent I know that that is the case. But when I pray as a religious Jew, what concerns me is that the words of my prayers be true and make sense in the way that I understand them, not necessarily in the way that the historical authors of the prayers meant them. I want the words of my prayers to meaningfully talk to and about a God that I believe in. And so, I ask myself, is there anything that I believe exists that answers to what the words of my prayers from the Siddur say about God? Is there anything worthy of my absolute dedication and faithfulness and that is as also as awe inspiring as the universe itself? If there is, I’ll call that thing God, and so my prayers will make sense.  

And so I ask myself: is there anything that I know of that is worthy of my absolute faithfulness? Is there anything that I really feel that I should be trying to serve and learn all of the time? And the answer is: Of course there is. Once again, I can’t say in words exactly what it is. But I can reasonably express it in the words love and justice. There are probably also other things that demand my faithfulness, but these are two of the most important. Now, these are big words and we could spend a long time talking about what they mean. But even if we skip that philosophical conversation, I think that everybody in this room knows that some version of love and justice is worthy of her or his absolute faithfulness and dedication. And so, if I understand God as the source or the essence of love and justice, then a big chunk of what I say in prayer will make sense and be true. And so, I conclude, love and justice are part of what I mean when I say “God”. Or in short: Love and justice are part of God.

Now, my claim is about the existence of God, that is, I’m claiming that you already know that God exists. And so I have to say something about what I mean by the word “existence”. What does it mean to “exist”? What do we regard as having “existence”? Do love and justice exist? I think the answer to that question is “of course they do”. Love and justice are central pieces of our inner lives and identities. They are as real to you and to me as our own selves are real to us. In fact, they are part of the very structure of our selves: Our concern with love and justice is built-in to who we are. Its part of the hardware and operating system bestowed upon us by evolution.

In my opinion, it makes absolutely no sense to define the word “exists” as not including the things that are most important in our lives. Clearly, things like selves, love and justice exist for us. Things that “don’t exist” cannot have an impact on our lives. But we feel the formative power of love and justice, and so, rationally speaking, love and justice can only be said to exist. And so as soon as I know that love and justice are part of God, I know that God exists, because love and justice and exist; and I also know that God is worthy of my absolute faithfulness and service, because love and justice are worthy of my absolute faithfulness and service.

Now, Above I said that God in the Siddur is not only worthy of faithfulness, but also as awesome and fascinating as the universe. So I ask myself, is there anything that I know of, that is as awesome and fascinating as the universe? Well, there is, in fact, one thing that I know of and that is: the universe itself! The simplest way to make sense of the idea that God is as awesome and fascinating as the universe is to say, like in the kabbalistic notion of ein sof, that the universe is part of God. Then it’s clear that the power and glory of the universe are the power and glory of God. Now, some people are put off by this kind of pantheism, and for them there are other alternatives. For the Rambam, for instance, the universe is not part of God, but God, rather, is the source or the essence of the universe. Now, we could talk a long about what that means exactly, but I’ll leave it to your imagination. However exactly you understand the Rambam’s idea that God is the source or the essence of the universe, it helps you make sense of the Siddur just as well as the pantheistic kabbalistic approach does. The bottom line for both the Kabbalah and for the Rambam is that when you lift up your eyes to gaze at the great space surrounding our planet, or you look out over a panoramic landscape, you encounter the glory and mystery of God, just like it says in Pseukei DeZimra.

And so if I put it all together, what I mean when I say “God” is at least the source or the essence of the universe, love and justice, however exactly you want to formulate that as a pantheism, a panentheism, a theism or whatever. The God of creation – that is, of the universe, and of love and justice, is in fact infinitely awesome and fascinating and worthy of our faithfulness. And so I think that we should all conclude that a big part of what it says in the Siddur about God makes sense and we know that it’s true.

And this has some very practical implications. If, when you are davening, and saying the words written in the Siddur, you are moved by powerful images and symbols that come to your mind, and those images and symbols involve the glory and mystery of the natural world, or the power of love or the importance of justice, then you should know that you’re doing exactly the right thing. Those images and symbols are in fact pointing your mind to the mystery and to the love and to the justice of God. And you know that that God not only exists, and is not only mysterious and fascinating, but is also truly worthy of your absolute faithfulness. So the bottom line is: you know quite a bit about God, and you know that God exists.

Now, even if you buy my argument up to this point, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have lots of unanswered questions about God. In fact, part of what we mean when we say “God” is “that about which we have unanswered questions” and so, if you have all the answers about something, that something cannot be God. However, some unanswered questions about God can get in the way of religious life. Here are three such questions:

1) If God is good, why is there evil?

2) If God is universal things like the universe, love and justice, how does God involve particularistic Jewish things like our Torah and commandments?

3) Why does it make sense to talk to God and to think of God as a Person?

Now, I think there are good answers to these questions. Ask me about them in the discussion if you want to hear my answers to them. But I want to stress now that even if you don’t have answers that you find compelling to questions like these, that doesn’t mean that you don’t know that God exists. Since God must mean at least the source or the essence of the universe, love and justice, you do know that God exists, even though you may have unanswered questions that can get in the way of religious life.

And so, I think that we as a community of liberal religious Jews should change the way we talk about God. When we talk about God, we tend to do a lot of throwing our hands up in the air, as if we have no idea what God means or if God exists or what God might be. This is part of a certain stream in Western through which has lost any meaningful sense of what the word “God” might refer to. One reason this happened is that for many people the word God no longer plays any meaningful role in their culture. However, for us, people who say the words of the Siddur, the word God does play a meaningful role in our culture. I’ve argued that it means, at least, that which requires our absolute faithfulness and that which inspires our overwhelming awe. And since we know that there are things that require our faithfulness and inspire our awe, there is no rational reason that we should talk as if we have no knowledge of God whatsoever. The opposite is the case: we know some things that God must be, and we know that they are not only real, but that they are the most important things in our lives.

Your turn. [Discussion:]

1) If God is good, why is there evil? Because we cannot be material sensual beings that can experience pleasure but not suffer, or be free and not be able to choose evil. (This is, in a sense, an approach that limits God’s power).

2) If God is universal things like the universe, love and justice, how does God involve particularistic Jewish things like our Torah and commandments? The Torah is a version of God’s Word like the People Israel are a version of humanity.

3) Why does it make sense to talk to God and to think of God as a Person? God is not a person, but rather the personal relation reveals true things about God, and about us and our relationship to God, and so it makes sense.