Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
“Proof to me that God exists.” Many a militant atheist has tried to bait me with this enticing polemical proposition. And yet, I always disappoint them by replying that I have neither ability (empirical, philosophical or otherwise) nor desire to test and proof the existence of a Supreme Being. In fact, I’d wager to say that even if, in some far-fetched future, we could find empirical evidence to proof God’s existence, religion would lose its value. Faith, or trust if we go with the Hebrew ‘emunah’, is not about hard facts. What’s the fun in religion – in the existential quest for connection and meaning – if it’s reduced to a trite attempt to proof, catch, contain and dissect God? So then we know God exists – snuffed out is our curiosity, critical thinking and creativity.
Thanks but no thanks.
What is more interesting to the experience of contemporary religion is showing godliness in the world: making God appear (or manifest) in the world. The jury is out on whether He, She or It is a metaphysical reality, but we can still engage with God as an idea and as a supreme value. (And yes, I do believe in the existence of God – I’m not an agnostic – I just don’t feel a need to proof it).
Making godliness appear in the world is not a bleeding-heart liberal cop-out, it’s an expansive vision of what religion at its best could be: a way of life to engage people despite personal belief, to act on our values and to make the world a bit better, brighter and more beautiful. As a matter of fact, this notion of ‘imitatio Dei’ – imitating God and godliness – is a very well-respected one in many faith traditions. Just as we ascribe loving-kindness, compassion and justice to God, so too should we emulate those values in God’s service. Talking God is not what makes religion powerful (just mildly irritating at best); doing God is.
Abraham and Sarah were God-doers, God-appearers par excellence and this week’s parashah is the section of the Torah where they do it rather well. In fact ‘Vayera’ means ‘and He appeared’. As Abraham was recovering from his auto-circumcision in the heat of the day, three strangers approached him. He didn’t ask them about their beliefs; about what they wanted, why they were there, whether they fitted into his definition of an acceptable human being. Instead, he just got up and served them. He welcomed them, washed their feet, provided them with hospitality and food. In short, he ‘did God’. And not only him; Sarah worked very hard in the kitchen behind the scenes, as women have traditionally done for centuries, to provide the dignified and tasty morsels for their guests. She was his partner in this, unequivocally so.
So when people say, ‘Judaism is about deed not creed’, it’s a pretty accurate reflection of what we as a tradition are about. That doesn’t mean spirituality, faith, trust, existential questioning and prayer aren’t important—they are. It just means that acting on your values is deemed more important and that prayer, faith and questioning should lead to righteous action. And thank God for that, because it opens up the inclusive Jewish experience to a broad range of Jews: religious, atheist, agnostic, humanist, cultural… they can all find a home and a mission ‘doing God’. There are many ways in which we can do God and make God tangible in a world that yearns for these positive values as well as concrete actions.
Mitzvah Day is coming up next week and this parashah provides us with both a model of how to do it and how not to do it. We have already looked at how to do it. But how not to do it is inextricably linked: the chasing away of Hagar and Yishmael and the binding of Isaac (not Abraham’s finest moments) but moreover, the Sodom and Gomorrah story. The Torah expects Abraham to rise to the moral challenge that Sodom and Gomorrah have failed in. A ‘tza’akah gedolah’, ‘The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah: how great it is. And their sin: how very heavy it is’ (Gen. 18:20). The Midrash (as well as later Biblical texts) identify the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah as being their lack of hospitality, heartlessness and cruelty. They inversed godly values; made a mockery of them. They un-did God.
We have the chance to ‘do God’: on Mitzvah Day and every day. We do not have to accept a world like Sodom and Gomorrah where kindness and hospitality are naught nor do we have to cruelly chase out the stranger the way poor Hagar and Yishmael were chased out. There are lots of good causes that we can pitch in on a very practical level: for Mitzvah Day, we are collecting children’s toys for PAFRAS, a charity that supports refugees. And of course, there’s the continuing BOGO campaign and High Holy Day Appeal. Our religion school kids are supporting the North Leeds Food Bank through collecting food donations and your donations (see the donation box and poster by Gwynneth’s office) are more than welcome.
On Sunday the 16th, we are making challah at shul (from 11 am to 1 pm) to give to asylum seekers—because everyone loves fresh, homemade bread and even a small gesture of kindness can brighten a life. In the Leeds Jewish community, Mitzvah Day supports such initiatives as donating children’s books for a local Children’s Centre as well as encouraging children to read, donating toiletries for and befriending vulnerable members of the Jewish community. In the wider community still, Sinai Synagogue is contemplating and working towards membership of Leeds Citizens where we can join the wider community in fighting for such causes as a Living Wage (and let me use this opportunity to plug Tom Chigbo’s sermon on Leeds Citizens next week!)
All in all, there’s no shortage of opportunity to get involved. And doing God doesn’t require storming the gates of heaven or changing the world singlehandedly. Vayera teaches us that there is power in a home-cooked meal served with kindness, that there is hope in trying to save even one human life threatened with destruction. We all have that power and we all have that chance, so get stuck in.
As for any atheists who want to take me up on the challenge of a theological debate. What I say instead of trying to proof God’s existence, is that I hope that the litmus test of any religiosity worth its salt is loving-kindness-in-action. The rest, as they say is commentary.