Just a thought: On being mindful of God

While scientists have pushed God out with their observations, rabbis have pushed God out with their observances.

DETAIL FROM Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ fresco (1509) in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
DETAIL FROM Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ fresco (1509) in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The past generations were religious men and women living in a religious age. We are men and women trying to be religious in a thoroughly unreligious age.
While the goal of religion in the past was to worship God, the goal today should be the awareness of God. We live in a time for which we seemingly have no need of any God, and certainly no need of a God that depends on our worship.
Science has provided proper and precise explanations for the world around us. Biology explains life and physics the universe. While we still don’t have all the answers, science provides the tools to find those answers.
The recent eclipse in North America was predicted years ago and the recent hurricanes days before they happened. No one experienced these as a surprise one day and thought it was the machinations of a capricious God who needs to be placated. We knew well in advance how to prepare and TV offered detailed explanations of how these phenomena occur.
More than 50 years ago, Time Magazine famously ran its “Is God Dead?” cover. Notice the wording. The question was not “Is there a God?” but “Is God dead?” In other words, was God, who once served a purpose, now irrelevant?
This was play on Nietzsche’s famous statement asking what place God has in our increasingly secular world. Did we squeeze God out of our lives?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous antidote was his concept of “radical amazement.” He wrote: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder.”
One of the ways in which we can express this radical amazement is by the blessings we make every day. Traditional Jews strive to make at least 100 blessings a day. We make blessings when we wake, use the bathroom, wash our hands, eat, sleep, see the ocean and experience the world. Even our most important prayer takes the form of a set of 19 blessings.
When I was a kid in yeshiva, I remember the rebbe telling me that if we ate without making a blessing, it was like stealing from God. As I got older, I realized that the rebbe had it wrong. God owes us food. He created us and is thus obligated to sustain us, no differently than a parent’s obligation to their children.
Blessing God isn’t asking permission to eat the food, it’s an expression of radical amazement at how good that food is and how wonderful it is to be alive. God could fulfill the obligation to us with plain overcooked oatmeal, without the cinnamon and sugar; but instead created strawberries and melons, chocolate and cheese, hamburgers and cake. We make blessings to pause and appreciate the amazing world that God created and to realize our privilege to be a part of it. The reality is that atheism is growing. Fewer and fewer people in the Western world believe in God. I think the problem lies in two realms.
The first, as mentioned before, is that western man has very little use for God. The second is that the God they reject is the juvenile notion of God they received when they were children.
It should be the goal of religion to keep up with the sophisticated world we live in and offer an equally sophisticated and meaningful theology to navigate in it. As we eat more from the Tree of Knowledge, we risk thinking ourselves as God-like, which was man’s first sin.
In the Orthodox Jewish world, there is very little theology going on. While scientists have pushed God out with their observations, rabbis have pushed God out with their observances. We are so caught up in the minutia of Halacha that we have squeezed God out of the picture and forgotten that the goal of the practice of Halacha is to make us more God aware.
The yirat hashem (fear of God) that motivates this should be replaced with awe of God, a better translation of the term. Rabbis in their sermons rarely talk about God. God-talk is usually substituted with some inane feel-good lesson from the weekly Torah reading or perhaps even something inspirational to strengthen ourselves in keeping a particular mitzva.
But the end goal of keeping the mitzva should always be the relationship with God. Otherwise we risk, as Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz pointed out, turning the observance of the mitzva into idolatry. Wouldn’t that be ironic?
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.