The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
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Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, June 14, 2013

Beyond Belief

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Parshat Chukat • 14 June 2013

Our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to the Lord and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt.
(Numbers 20:15-16)

A favorite topic of mine, that I often raise, is the question: Do you believe in God? I've even asked for a show of hands before. My fascination with this question comes from our culture’s near obsession with it as THE central question of religion and religious affiliation. That, and its utter uselessness as a question. It doesn’t actually tell me much about you.

As Stanford Professor T.M. Luhrmann says in the NY Times (5/29/13) “Belief is the Least Part of Faith”: it’s a question that "university-educated liberals ask about faith." It's a deep question. But it's also abstract and intellectual, a philosophical question.

Luhrmann spent years studying evangelical churches and churchgoers. For them, the questions are different: how can we feel God’s love, and be more aware of God’s presence? “Those,” she says, “are fundamentally practical questions.”

That we are obsessed with the True/False questions of God’s existence, always demanding evidence, shows how deeply modern we are. Ancient Judaism took God as a given, so the questions became, how do we follow God’s will? How do we act as God’s agents in the world? How shall we interpret God’s word, since the authority to do that is in our hands? They were mercifully free of the nagging and neurotic modern questions that we ask: Does God exist? How do we know? How do we know if we know anything???

Thankfully, postmodern Judaism (to the extent there is such a thing...) is coming back around to the wisdom of not obsessing over these unanswerable and unproductive questions.

As Luhrmann wisely notes, secular Americans (and many Jews!) think that the key to understanding religion is knowing why people believe in God. In our “folk model of the mind,” she writes, we think that belief precedes action and explains choice, that belief comes first.

But that’s probably backward. As Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches: theology emerges from experience. And from Emile Durkheim, famous sociologist (paraphrasing): You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

Belief is more like a unifying banner, a flag you raise and wave together, than an intellectual position arrived at by reasoned argument.

Here our tradition has always been a helpful guide. Moses, when speaking to a neighboring kingdom in this parashah, doesn’t define the Israelites as the people who believe in Adonai, but rather, he tells a story about relationship:
Our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to Adonai and God heard our plea, and God sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt. (Numbers 20:15-16)
As a people, we are constantly anchoring ourselves, identifying ourselves, by our story -- not by our philosophical positions. (That is a medieval and modern excursion.)

Robert Alter -- professor, scholar, critic, translator, leading voice on Bible as literature -- teaches us how to approach our tradition in this way. He speaks of the Bible as a genius work(s) of literary achievement. For him, “This is not a demotion, but an elevation.” Approaching Scripture this way, and only this way, can we hope to fully grasp its layers of meaning, and apply it holistically to our lives and experiences. As one critic said, the Bible as great literature carries the “authority of imagination” rather than the authority of religion. This kind of authority -- softer than traditional legal and rabbinic authority -- is yet deeper, more enduring, more resonant. And it is more important for the future of Judaism, and what Judaism has to offer the world.

Alter is teaching us again about the Bible's literary value with Ancient Israel, a forthcoming translation and commentary of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These are more historically oriented books, depicting Israel as a political entity, struggling against warring tribes, idolatry within, and questions of leadership and social organization. (Watch for this as the basis of a future Adult Education class...)

And indeed my course this summer on contemporary Jewish short stories is in line with Alter and Luhrmann’s views of religion and text. If the Bible is the literature of its day, and these short stories are the literature of our day, they all have much to say to us about what it means to be a Jew, to be a human being, facing the questions of existence.

And our summer concert, too -- Beyond Belief: Sounds of Sacred Searching -- will be in a similar vein. It will feature interviews with valley locals, sharing their stories of faith and doubt, of struggle and affirmation. We envision it as a presentation not to “prove” a philosophical argument, but to lift up a network of stories and relationships that make this valley a spiritually special place.

Luhrmann concludes: "These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold."

Let us continue to be defined by the questions we ask, and by the stories we tell of our ancestors’ quests, and our own. Let us leave for the next generation a legacy of questions, and the wisdom to ask them together in sacred community.


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