‘I hear that nowadays Rabbis don’t have to believe in God – Rabbi, do you believe in God?’
I have heard this or questions alike many times in my carrier as a rabbi, and to be honest, it’s a question I’ve asked myself several times, too. There are moments in life, when your belief in God is put on trial, and you hope for a little sign to give you some kind of certainty, and that you aren’t totally wrong, and that God is not only in your imagination. The good news is that neither I nor anyone else who has this kind of doubts from time to time is alone in this struggle. Both the Torah and our Jewish tradition, report from those struggles, and also from their opposite, the undaunted faith in God.
The generation of the Exodus had many opportunities to experience God and God’s miracles. Even while they were in Egypt and later during the Exodus, they were witnesses to God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm. When the Israelites reached Mount Sinai they experienced God like no other people before or after. One of the most difficult and puzzling sections in this week’s Torah portion is the sin of the golden calf. The very people who experienced God’s presence and protection like no other generation before or after them, lost their faith in God, but our portion also reports that God didn’t.
Centuries after the sin of the golden calf lived a simple shepherd called Akiva. In his time the people of Israel were under the oppressive rule of the Romans. In his time God did not attempt to deliver the people from the hands of the oppressor. There were no pillars of smoke and fire, and no Ten Plagues. There was no revelation equivalent to Sinai and no salvation for Jews. Yet, despite God’s apparent withdrawal from the world, Akiva decided to accept the yoke of the Torah. The Talmud tells us that when Akiva was seized by the Romans, he was condemned to death by torture. When he was close to death, he uttered the ‘Sh’ma Yisra’el’. Akiva’s experience appears to be in complete contrast with that of the generation of the Exodus. Although he lived and died without benefiting from a fraction of God’s presence and protection, he did not lose his faith.
I can see something very helpful for our own relationship to God in both stories. No matter how frequent and powerful our encounters with God may be, we might still fail to acknowledge God’s involvement in our world. Miracles will not necessarily convince the non-believer, while their absence will not deter the strong believer. Our relationship to God is nothing static. We may come closer to the Divine, or distance ourselves from time to time. We may be depending on the Divine more in certain stages of our lives, in other moments, we may be less needy of the divine presence. At the end, what’s important is that there is a relationship, it doesn’t matter how close or how distant it is. For me personally I see that there is still a bond which doesn’t rely on constant reminders. It is this kind of immanent presence what makes our relationship to God so special. Even if we doubt, or struggle.
Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Adrian M Schell
Torah Reading for Shabbat Ki Tissa
Exodus 30:11-34:35 (Reading Ex 30:11-35; Plaut p.584; Hertz p.352);
Haftarah: I Kings 18:1-39 (Plaut p.607; Hertz p.369
Torah Study with Rabbi Schell every Shabbat at 08h45
Thursday Night Liturgy Class with Rabbi Schell – every Thursday at 18.00 – 19.30
Podcast of Rabbi Schell’s weekly Sermons Tuesdays on Radio Today (10h30) or: http://goo.gl/LsHQrY.