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.