Saturday, September 11, 2010

You Don't Have to be Jewish..or Even Believe in God

Last Saturday, the weekly Torah portion pictured God saying about the people who are about to enter the Promised Land, "They will forsake me and break my covenant" (Deuteronomy 31:16). Reading that verse reminded me of a very similar verse in Jeremiah, which states: "[They] have forsaken me and have not kept my Torah." To which the Pesikta D'Rav Kahana, a 5th- to 7th-century midrash, glosses: "If only they had forsaken me--and kept my Torah!"

Torah literally means teaching, instruction. It is not only the contents of the five books of Moses, or even of the whole Hebrew Bible: it's the tradition that's developed--and still developing, this instant--about how we should live our lives. As the rabbis read it, the God who is a character in the Torah (narrow meaning) says that we don't have to believe in God as a reality in the universe at large. What we have to believe in is Torah (larger meaning): that there is a way to lead a moral life as a person and as a society, and that studying to understand it and to walk in that way is the most important thing we can do.

A God who can say that I don't have to believe in God: that is a God I can believe in! Even if that God doesn't happen to exist (as Stephen Hawking is now arguing, and which would be a most inconvenient truth), that God is still the moral example I can follow and in whom I can put my trust. And my belief that I am in partnership with the moral force of the universe allows me to be partners with you, whether or not you believe in God.

So let's make this world better. We'll find out about the next one if and when we get there.

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