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The God Puzzle

"I don't believe in God," the young woman said as she sat down in my office. "Do you have to believe in God to be Jewish?" Before saying "No you don't" to her question -- Jewishness is determined by parentage or by conversion -- I decided to engage her on her opening statement. "You say you don't believe in God," I began. "Do you believe that there are connections in the world -- between you and other people, you and nature?" "Of course," she said. "What kind of person would I be if I didn't?"

That answer -- that to be human is to believe there are connections in the world -- convinces me that most people -- perhaps all people -- believe in God, whether they acknowledge it or not. All of us feel connected to something, whether to friends or relatives, to an ocean or a lake as we watch its waves, to the mountains as the sun rises or sets over them -- and we know that all of us are made up of atoms and molecules that are connected to one another. Not to believe in the interconnectedness of the universe is to fly in the face of what we know about science, the strong emotions we feel for others, and the great and humbling phenomena in nature. Indeed, the term the rabbis used for a nonbeliever was Apikoros, probably derived from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who believed there were no connections between the isolated particles in the universe.

The next step toward recognizing the religious nature of a belief in connectedness is to acknowledge that there is a sum of all the connections in the world, and that another name for the sum of all these connections is God. A problem with that definition, of course, is that we cannot see all these connections, and while we might acknowledge that all the static elements of the universe are connected, we may be less ready to acknowledge that the events of the universe -- the dynamic interrelationships with other people or with nature -- are interconnected. Is there a correlation between the events of our lives, between ours and others' lives, between our lives and natural events?

We cannot know the answer to that question, and here is where knowledge and faith diverge. We can know that there are connections in the world, and we can call the sum of those connections God -- but can this assumption lead us to an affirmation of faith that God is the Source, the Cause, of those connections? I believe it can.

I believe that the world -- the interconnections between space and time, which Hebrew translates as olam -- is like a huge jigsaw puzzle. * But there is one major difference: on the front of the jigsaw puzzle box is a picture of how it will look when we have connected all the pieces. We can consult the picture on the box to see how to construct the puzzle. When God brought us into the world, however, we were not given the picture on the cover. All we have are the disconnected pieces of the puzzle, and part of the purpose of our existence is to figure out how they fit together. If God is the sum of all these pieces, when we begin to see how they relate to each other, we begin to come into the presence of God. How do we know that the connections we see among the pieces of our life make sense?

I believe we have to want to know. We have to work at finding out. God told Moses that everything that went into creating the mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness, was to be called melachah (work). In the mishkan, which means "dwelling place," the Israelites could experience the dwelling of God in their midst, but they had to build it, using their possessions, their creativity, their skill, their sweat -- all so that they could experience the presence of God. I believe we are enjoined to do no less in our days -- to turn all our experiences, all our creativity, all our possessions, all our encounters with nature into an awareness of God's presence -- and an awareness of how God dwells in our midst.

Were you greeted this morning by a beautiful sunrise? Did you take it for granted, or did you stand at your window or on your front step and look at it, watch as the pink and orange rays spread over the rooftops of your street, and realize that the Creator of Light was giving you a gift of light? You may even have responded, Baruch atta Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam, oseh ma-asei v'reisheet, Praised are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the olam, who does the deed of Creation. You may know the physics behind the sunrise, but your prayer gives you a statement of faith -- that the way the molecules combine to bring its color to your eyes is caused by the Ribono shel Olam, the Source of Time and Space.

But what if your encounter with the world is an unpleasant one -- with someone tailgating you on the expressway or elbowing you out of the way of the closing subway door? You can say the same berachah for the patience, the empathy even, that that hurrying person could have taught you, had you asked yourself, "What can I learn from this unpleasant encounter?"

Unpleasant encounters with God's creations, of course, are much more challenging tests of our ability to see God's presence in our lives than encounters with sunrises, oceans, and mountains. Developing the faith that God is the Source of connections requires a lot of work -- particularly when we feel abused by someone. Most of us tend to label these events as random human failings -- he was in a hurry so he tailgated, she pushed her way through the subway line more aggressively than I did. But if we are struggling to move from the knowledge that God is the sum of connections to the faith that God is the cause of at least some connections, we will not be satisfied with a random interpretation of events. If we are determined to see how the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit together, we will insist on asking, "What can I learn from this event?" "Why did this happen to me now?" To strive to see everyone we encounter as a potential teacher is to live in a much more highly aware, spiritually conscious plane than most of us do.

Is it a denial of our free will to assert that there is a relationship between events? Rabbi Akiba argued that life is not a question of free will or a divine plan, but a paradoxical dialogue between them both: "Everything is seen (by God), and free will is given" (Pirkei Avot 3:19).

An example. Some years ago, my office received a call from a stranger who was stranded at a gas station and needed money. I stopped what I was doing, drove to the gas station, gave the man some money, and pulled out into the street. Suddenly I heard behind me the crack of one car plowing into another, and then that car hit me. I was not injured, but the irony of the situation rattled me. Here I had gone out of my way to do a mitzvah, an act of tzedakah -- and instead of realizing Rabbi Azzai's teaching in Pirkei Avot (4:2) that one mitzvah draws another with it, my act had negative consequences. I thought about this for some time, asking myself: Why did this happen to me? What was I to learn from it? After a while, the answer that came to me was that I had felt a little too much self-satisfaction in the minor act of tzedakah that I had done, and that I could understand the accident to be a little comeuppance. Did that mean that God had caused the accident? If so, was that God's reason?

If I believed I knew the answer to either of those questions, I would be adding the sin of arrogance to that of self-satisfaction. Of course we cannot know the mind of God. But if we are trying to develop the faith that the events of our lives can show us part of the invisible picture on the cover of the jigsaw puzzle box, we can interpret the events as a teaching that the Source of All Teaching has presented to us as a gift -- a gift as valuable as a sunrise, even though the teaching comes through our mind or our intuition rather than through the (usually) more reliable five senses. But just as we use intuition to guide our understanding of our relations with human beings, why should we not rely on it in our relations with God as well? In the messianic time, we shall find out whether our intuitions were correct; for the present, if they help us feel accompanied by God as we live our lives, that should be sufficient.

But -- the inevitable but, the intimidating but, the but that often closes off any further discussion of the role of God in our lives--what can we possibly learn from the senseless death of a child, the heartless killing of an upstanding citizen, the ghastly murders of six million of our people in the Shoah?

There is no answer, many people say. We shall never understand those things. Better not to ask -- better, even, not to open the question of the role God can play in our lives.

I cannot accept that. If we allow the sicknesses that are spreading in the world, the cruel acts that abound, the unspeakable cruelty that has befallen our people, to silence our work on the mishkan of God's presence in the world, then not only have we given Hitler a victory he does not deserve, not only have we capitulated to atheism, but we have declared that the millions of Jews throughout the centuries who staked their lives and their deaths on faith were misguided, naïve, and -- because they could not argue their faith with proofs based on knowledge -- they were wrong.

I will not do that. Jacob was given a new name, Israel, because his destiny was to wrestle with God and with human beings, and to prevail. It is not easy to search for the picture of the world-puzzle in the pieces that make up our lives -- but we cannot surrender before we begin.

How shall we wrestle with death? Why does God permit the death of a child? Kohelet, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (3:2), declares: et la-ledet ve-et la-mut, there is a time to be born and a time to die. Jewish law has understood that verse to mean that God determines when our time to die comes -- it is the proof text for the belief that we may not hasten anyone's death. Everyone has an et la-mut -- a time to die -- and that is part of our problem. We have never really adjusted to the fact that, after Eden, we ceased being immortal. Who are we to decide what is a person's proper life span? When I conducted my first funeral for a baby who died at the age of a year, I tried to suggest to the grieving family that, in some mysterious way we could not know, it was possible to have faith that this sweet little boy had fulfilled his calling in the precious few months he lived on earth. Did it comfort the family? Probably not on the day of the funeral. But I hope, as time passed, that they came to understand what they and others had learned from his short time on earth, and that the work they had put into bringing him into the world and sustaining him was not in vain.

The Bible emphasizes over and over that, because death is part of our existence, we are to live life as joyfully, as much in the presence of God, as we can. We can transform death from the invasive, violent destruction of life into the act of culmination of life by filling our lives full of sunrises with their blessings, of joyful awakenings, of eating and loving and celebrating and giving tzedakah with no expectation of any reward beside the awareness of helping to build a mishkan for the presence of God in all the days we are granted on earth.

The book that helped me make the most sense out of the Holocaust was Yaffa Eliach's Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. Don't be misled by the title -- it is not fundamentally about Hasidim, but about all religious people who are able to see the presence of God in the normal events of their days. Because these people had grown accustomed to feeling themselves in God's presence during ordinary times, they could also feel themselves in God's presence when the times became extraordinary -- when they were herded into the ghettos and into the extermination camps. Some of them survived, others were killed -- but they all knew that God is present in death as in life. They, like we, had offered the Mourner's Kaddish, praising God for the beauty of life that is beyond praise, even as they mourned the end of one after another bearer of such a life. If such people could feel that the mishkan lived in the ghetto and the extermination camp, how can we say that it is impossible to see God's presence now? How can we say that the agony of a baby's death or a teenager's collision or a strong young woman's cancer wipes out the possibility of faith that there is some connection between those tragedies and a world of sunrises and soaring mountains?

When the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism in May of 1999, we offered some assistance to Reform Jews -- and others -- seeking to find the presence of God in difficult times. For a generation, the Reform Movement had proclaimed that each Reform Jew was autonomous, free to find whatever meaning and purpose in the world each of us might, with our tradition as a guide. The Pittsburgh Principles suggest another model -- not the lonely, autonomous individual struggling unassisted to see where God is present in the world, but a model which invites "all Reform Jews to engage in a dialogue with the sources of our tradition, responding out of our knowledge, our experience and our faith. Thus we hope to transform our lives through kedushah, holiness."

The Principles present a world in which God's presence is accessible in a myriad of ways -- "in moments of awe and wonder, in acts of justice and compassion, in loving relationships and in the experiences of everyday life." And we in turn can "respond to God daily," for belief in God is not a one-way, autonomous journey, but an ongoing dialogue with a God who - if we have trained our intuitions sufficiently--we can sense is calling us. Our response, the Principles remind us, can come through prayer, study, and the observance of mitzvot between God and ourselves, and among each other. This work of looking for God in all these moments through the doing of all these mitzvoth -- of not merely working with the homeless but stepping back to feel God's presence working there as well, not merely giving tzedakah but stepping back to experience our giving back to God what God has given to us, of not merely praying that our loved ones heal but stepping back to experience God working alongside us--this hard work will help us "strive for a faith that fortifies us through the vicissitudes of our lives -- illness and healing, transgression and repentance, bereavement and consolation, despair and hope." And this kind of faith will also sustain our belief that, "in spite of the unspeakable evils committed against our people and the sufferings endured by others, the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail."

The Principles state that "we affirm the reality and oneness of God." To be human, to experience the interconnectedness of things, is to believe in God. Our task as Reform Jews is to strive to encounter God's reality in as many ways as we can, to put together as many pieces of the puzzle of that reality as we can, so that more and more of God's oneness, God's active role in the relationships of all of our lives, will become apparent to all. In this way, we will help to realize the creation of the mishkan of God's kedushah, God's holy, palpable presence in our days and the days of our children, soon and in our time.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1997-1999, during which time he conceived and played an instrumental role in securing passage of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, a.k.a. the "Pittsburgh Principles," in May 1999.