How to Believe in God

I’m writing this in response to a d’var Torah I heard at shul. The speaker said, “I love going to shul and feeling this sense of beauty and love. But I don’t think I believe in God.” I felt bad for her. Something was keeping her from believing in God that didn’t need to be there. I talked to her afterward and told her the following story.

During Passover, we tell the story of the 4 sons: The wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the one who does not know how to ask. Each of these sons represents a different phase in life and a different type of understanding and therefore engagement.

The wise son asks, “What are the statutes, the testimonies, and the laws which the Lord, our God, has commanded you?” He’s a good mature son, who wants to actively engage and learn more. The second son, the wicked son, is far more challenging. He represents the teenager who questions everything saying, “Why do you do all these rituals.” He doesn’t share the beliefs of the group and wants to pester the group with his questions. He’s a typical teenager.

But the wicked son really isn’t that wicked. In more recent translations, I’ve seen him described as the rebellious son. His questioning can be seen as a sign of seeking deeper understanding. Though it might appear confrontational or dismissive at first, this questioning is a part of growing up, testing boundaries, and forming one’s own views.

Teenagers are a tricky bunch. They are rebellious. They no longer believe what the world tells them. Instead, they need to construct their own understanding of the world. These are years of questioning and personal exploration so they can develop into thoughtful and independent adults. It’s through this process that they challenge existing norms, push boundaries, and ultimately shape their distinct sense of self and place in society.

All teenagers do this. I was talking with a 12-year-old whose mother was Jewish and father was not. His mother wanted him to have a Bar Mitzvah. He said, “I don’t want a Bar Mitzvah. Why would I have a Bar Mitzvah if I don’t believe in God? I don’t believe that there was a man in the sky who created the world in seven days.” But here’s the thing. No teenagers believe in God. It’s part of their questioning.

This is the way the person who gave the d’var Torah was thinking. Most Jews, including me, stop their formal Jewish education after their Bar (0r Bat) Mitzvahs. So we still think a bit like teenagers on theological matters. “How can I believe in God if I don’t believe that the world was created in seven days?” But the thing is, no one believes the world was created in seven days. Even the most fervent believers only think that the world was created in six days. Why would this omnipotent being need a day to rest? What does it even mean for God to rest? Clearly, these stories aren’t meant to be taken as literal facts.

So if God isn’t the literal God from the Bible, who is he? Rabbi Harold Kushner gives the following answer in his book Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life:1

One day, an astute colleague shared with me a tactic he uses, one that apparently can be traced to the great Protestant preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick. Instead of arguing with his young congregant and hoping to change his mind, he would say to him, “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in. There are a lot of gods I don’t believe in. Maybe we’ll discover that we both reject the same notion of God, and then maybe we can find an understanding of God that we can both accept.”

Where, then, do I find God? I find God stretching to the limits of human strength and endurance to do what life calls on him to do. I find God in the willingness of so many people to do the right thing, even when the right thing is difficult, expensive, or unappreciated, and to reject the wrong thing no matter how tempting or profitable.

Where does an ordinary person find that willpower unless God is present, motivating that person to surpass himself? I find God not in the tests that life imposes on us but in the ability of ordinary people to rise to the challenge, to find within themselves qualities of soul, qualities of courage they did not know they had until the day they needed them. God does not send the problem, the illness, the accident, the hurricane, and God does not take them away when we find the right words and rituals with which to beseech Him. Rather, God sends us strength and determination of which we did not believe ourselves capable, so that we can deal with, or live with, problems that no one can make go away.

Kushner, Harold S.. Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life (pp. 18-19, 43-44). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

This brings me back to the d’var Torah. I responded to the person giving the d’var Torah: “Let God be what you need. Let God be that love you feel in shul. Don’t let these assumptions of what God is supposed to be keep you from connecting with him God.”

  1. I write more about Kushner in my post God is My Coach. ↩︎