God 101: Jewish Ideals, Beliefs, and Practices for Renewing your Faith

God 101: Jewish Ideals, Beliefs, and Practices for Renewing your Faith

by Terry Bookman

Paperback(1 ED)


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399526589
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/01/2001
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.11(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.53(d)

About the Author

Terry Bookman is Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth Am, the largest congregation in Miami, Florida. Widely published in religious journals, he is active in dozens of Jewish, spiritual, and Rabbinic associations. Rabbi Bookman frequently lectures to community groups and religious leaders, and has recently launched an on-line spiritual forum through which he offers spiritual guidance to hundreds of participants each day.

To visit his website go to:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Question 1

* * *

Is There Really (a) God?

Did God create us, or did we create God? There are really only two possibilities. Either we created God or God created us. Oh, we could play the agnostic game and say "maybe." Though I suppose that choice could be intellectually honest for some of you reading these words, my kids know that when I say "maybe," it really means "no," but I want their mother to be the one to say it, or I am just buying time, hoping they will forget about their request. Just as I eventually have to answer their questions, we will have to answer this one sooner or later. But when it comes to this question, we answer it with the way we live our lives.

    There was this couple in a class I was teaching. I had asked if anyone ever felt close to God—not believed in or had knowledge of, but simply felt close. The husband raised his hand and said in a loud and excited voice, "We just came back from a ski trip. I was coming down the slope when suddenly I hit a whiteout ... couldn't see a thing. I could have waited there, but sometimes these things take hours, and it was really cold. Then and there I decided to point my skis down the slope and go for it. I knew God was with me and would not allow anything bad to happen. And sure enough, I skied down without a problem." As he finished, with a big smile on his face, the entire class started staring at his wife, waiting for her response. "Blind luck!" she said. "The man is just plain lucky!" Two possibilities—God or luck.

   Thestatement that there is a God is a statement of faith. It is not a statement of fact. There is no proof of God. None. However, the statement that there is no God is also a statement of faith. It, too, is not a statement of fact. Neither belief can be proved or disproved. I can point to reasons why I have faith that there is a God—cogent reasons as far as I am concerned—but they are not a proof of anything. An atheist can also point to cogent reasons. They, too, are not proof. We all have faith in something. Atheists place their faith in humanity, or in the creations of people—political systems, government, society, law, movements for the betterment of humanity, and so on. The best we can do is stake a claim and live our lives accordingly.

    Nevertheless, there have been, throughout the ages, attempts to prove God's existence. Today, it is done with computers, a modern gammatria/number interpretation checking every 176th or 423rd letter in the Bible to spell out some secret message encoded in the text. It kind of reminds me of playing the song "Strawberry Fields Forever" backward to find out that Paul McCartney was dead. Proof for the existence of God is not new because doubting God's reality is also not new. We are not the first generation of doubters. And when those Russian cosmonauts went up in space in the early sixties and declared that they could not see God anywhere, they were not the first skeptics to call into question the physical reality of God in the world.

    One of my favorite arguments for the proof of God comes from the rabbinic commentator and philospher Saadia Gaon in the Middle Ages. If one were to walk into a dining room and find a perfectly set table, plates all lined up, silverware on the proper side, water glasses and wine goblets where they ought to be, one could say all the place settings flew out of their cabinets and landed exactly where they belonged. It could have happened that way. But a rational person would assume that someone was responsible for setting that table. In like manner, when we consider that our world, the human body, the animal kingdom are so intricately structured, it is difficult to believe, it defies rationality, that it is all the result of random atoms colliding billions of years ago. I mean, it could all be the result of some cosmic accident, but when I look out my window now that I am living in Miami and I see what could be the very same bird that years ago was setting off to fly south for the winter, I recognize how orderly, how precise our world truly is, how everything fits together and has its place. For me, this is evidence enough that there is a greater intelligence operating in the universe, one that was responsible for setting up our world. I call that intelligence God. It is one way I have for relating to the Transcendent.

    But just as we cannot prove God's reality, neither can we disprove it. Maybe that is why we speak of "faith." Faith is a kind of knowing that does not rely on rational or scientific proofs. Like intuition, or knowing that someone loves you, or the knowledge that derives from personal experience. When I say, "My experience teaches me that," I am stating something that I believe to be true, even if I cannot prove it. Faith is a way of knowing that is neither rational nor irrational. I believe that, in our postmodern world, we are becoming more and more open to other ways of knowing, ways that are not limited to the rational and the scientific, as important as they are for some things.

    So, since we cannot prove our answer to the question of God's existence, we have to wager. We stake a claim. Many options call out to us, each claiming to be true. Our decision will not be so simple. If it were, I would not have had to write this book nor would you be reading it. The cynic states that God is a societal invention, created by leaders in order to control people and keep them in line. Freud understood God as a creation of the psyche, the father figure whom we project into the heavens, always ready to reward us when we do his bidding or to punish us when we disobey his rules. Marx said that God is the opiate of the masses, drugging us, the proletariat, so that we do not rise up in rebellion against the oppressive ruling class. Nietzsche and others declared that God is dead, that all we have is ourselves, and it really does not matter what we choose. All of these "truths" have attracted millions of adherents in modernity, with varying results. Each, I think, has its basis in humanity anal thus shifts control and responsibility away from God and toward the human community. Each is idealistic in its own way, believing in the "perfectibility of man." And that, too, takes a great deal of faith.

    A somewhat different slant, proposed by many modern psychotherapists and sociologists of religion and endorsed by a growing number of physicians, suggests that while God is indeed a human creation, faith serves a very beneficial purpose as the basis for healthy values, as a comfort in times of grief and sorrow, and as a source of unconditional love. Some recent studies even say that those who pray or meditate are healthier, even live longer. In other words, God is a good thing for people, useful and helpful. One is encouraged to turn to God in times of need or joy, to pour out one's heart, to take hold of that helping hand, to pray for healing. I call this the "It couldn't hurt" approach. While it is benevolent, it still begs the question.

    There are also many people—good people, and I meet them every day—who declare themselves to be "not religious" but who perform acts of love and kindness and righteousness toward others. There are others who appear to be religious, who study Torah, but who do all manner of unethical things, are nasty to others, and lead lives that are unworthy of emulation. The implication is clear. What good is religion and belief in God if it produces people like that? Such people make it difficult for me to insist on the necessity of God. Besides, I do not want to disabuse the ethical humanist of his faith in people. Actions do speak louder than words. For me, one who does God's work in the world by loving and caring for others, even if he or she does not place God in the mix, is worthy of praise. But I just do not think it is enough.

    All of us people of faith have to be open to the possibility that we created God. I own that. But there is another possibility, equally compelling—that we are God's creation and that the story we have been telling for as long as there have been people is essentially true. We may tell that story in many ways. We may describe God as a process, a force, a power, or an intelligence. Or we may use anthropomorphic imagery, which helps us humanize and feel closer to this transcendent God. In whatever way we say it, we admit that we and everything else are the result of God's creative energy in the universe. There is a power greater than ourselves, infinite and endless, that always was, is, and will be. God is the primary reality, that which connects you and me, and all creation for all time. What we call ONE.

    And if this is what we believe—and here it gets a bit threatening for us—it means we have to accept our limits. It means we are not in control, at least not ultimate control. It means the world does not revolve around us and our needs any more than the sun revolves around the earth. For us in the modern world, this may feel like (you should pardon the expression) heresy. After all, hasn't the experience of modernity been about our controlling our own fate, our own destiny? We have displaced God from the center of the universe and then from the center of our lives. And in God's place? None other than you and I, our thoughts and beliefs, our ideals and creations, our wants and needs. To accept God means we must return to a theocentric view of the universe and life itself. This means God is firmly in the center. Not you or I. And that scares us, for it makes us recognize that we are not in control.

    But that is the other possibility. There is no absolute certainty. The best we can do is stake a claim and live accordingly, live as if there is (or there isn't) God. Make your choice and place your bets. Personally, I stake my claim on the former. It just seems to make more sense to me—always has. From the time I was a little boy, standing next to my grandpa in synagogue, playing with the fringes on his tallis, wrapping it around my shoulders, I felt held by God. I was the religious child in a household that lived and breathed Jewish culture but was very secular. We talked about the Jewish people, ate Jewish foods, sent care packages to Israel, but there was no talk about God or religion in my home. Not unlike many New York Jews of the time. Even then, without the words to express it, I knew I would rather wager my life that there is God and then try to live accordingly.

    Why? And why should you invest all that time, energy, and focus if it turns out that there really isn't God in the first place? Well, I wish I could say your life would always be happier, that you would never get angry or hurt the ones you love, that you would always have clarity of purpose and direction, that having God in your life would be a recipe for happiness, security, and inner peace. For many prophets, the presence of God was like a "fire in the bones," driving them more than a bit crazy, isolating them from their fellow human beings.

    The truth is, our having faith in God's reality does not free us from our humanity and the foibles associated with being a person. We will still be imperfect. Faith will not make us instantly good; it may just make us a little "less bad." But faith does give us a way to pick ourselves up again, to know the difference between good and evil and thus to feel responsible for, but not condemned by, our mistakes. It locates us in a community of others, fellow travelers to support and sustain us. It attaches us to timeless values that are not subject to every trend and whim that comes along. It provides us a code of conduct, a framework within which we can measure and structure our lives. It guides us in the choices we make, from how and what we eat to how we spend our time and money. It provides us with a sense of purpose and mission. It helps us to feel that we are never alone. In the end, I believe, faith in God makes more sense, it makes the world a better place, it makes my life work better.

    Not to believe in God, for me, is a much shakier proposition. Then what? Where will ultimate authority reside? In you and me? I know myself too well. I know that I am capable of much good, truly altruistic behavior, but I also know I am capable of rationalizing away all my faults and my failures. We all are. Besides, each of us is so wrapped up in our own life, our own feelings of want and entitlement, that our view can only be subjective, is bound to be motivated by self-interest and survival. And when it comes to those we love, or causes that we support, we have to admit, objectivity is out the window.

    I am even less convinced that "society" can be the authority. In our own time, have we not witnessed majority-mandated evil? We have seen governments in so-called enlightened and educated nations legislate torture, genocide, and terrorism. The greatest atrocities against humanity have been committed in this century by governments that have outlawed religion and exiled God. And if there is no God, who will say that murder is wrong, or that anything is wrong? And how will we know that the highest value is to love my neighbor as I would myself want to be loved? Or is that just someone else's opinion? All anthropocentric systems are bound to fail, given the reality of self-interest. Because, in the right set of circumstances, self-interest will tell us that we are exempt from following the rules of conscience. And if we do not have an Ultimate Authority that resides above all persons and any human institution, an authority that tells us what we must do, then we will violate any rule. Just one night of watching the local news will tell you that.

    But it goes beyond that. If there is no God, to whom will we pray? Where will we turn when friends and family are not available? Who will heal us when we are wounded and broken? Who will give us courage and strength when our own personal resources fail us? In what can we hope? Where is the authority for all our worthy behavior? Is it just that it feels right? What happens if it no longer does? How do we respond to those who declare that it is a cold, cruel, dog-eat-dog world, and we must look out for number one? Is it just that we disagree? One opinion versus another, with each person entitled to his or her own opinion? Is life really any deeper, richer, more meaningful without God? I don't think it can be.

    A story is told of a wedding taking place in a storefront restaurant. The musicians are off in an alcove and so cannot be seen from the street. Two deaf men walk by and see all these people jumping and dancing with wild abandon. One turns to the other and signs that these people in the restaurant must be crazy; the deaf men, of course, could not hear the music.

    Yes, there may be no God. Or there just might be, even if we cannot personally "hear the music." That's just the way it is for some of us. Whatever you believe does not make you a bad person. Nevertheless, I choose to live my life as if there is God. For right now, in spite of all the abuses perpetrated in God's name, I don't think we can do any better. Those who want to know for sure before they stake their own claim, will have to wait for a long time. If we could know with absolute certainty, we would not have to call it faith.

Table of Contents

PART ONE Questions We Ask
Introduction: God Makes a Comeback3
QUESTION 1: Is There Really (a) God?9
QUESTION 2: What Is the Nature of God?17
QUESTION 3: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? And
Why Do Bad Things Happen in Our World?22
QUESTION 4: Why Are There No Miracles Today? Why Doesn't
God Still Speak To Us?37
QUESTION 5: Seeing Is Believing, Right? Then Why Can't
We See God?44
QUESTION 6: How Can We Reconcile Science with Belief in
QUESTION 7: Does God Have a Plan for Each of Us? Does
God Care About Us on an Individual Level? Does God52
QUESTION 8: What Is the Relationship Between Organized
Religion and God? Why are There So Many Religions? Do We57
PART TWO Pathways to God
The Path of the Heart: Prayer74
The Path of the Head: Study103
The Path of the Hands and Feet: Action129
The Path of the Soul: Relationships152
About the Author193

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