By Rabbi Shawn Zell
I read obituaries. Every so often, I find material useful for a Dvar Torah. Rarely does an obituary grate on my nerves. Recently, I came across one of those rare obituaries. A month ago, Richard Rubenstein, a rabbi, theologian, and a denier of G-d’s existence, died at the age of 97, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The death of G-d is an absurdity for any Jew. Just as G-d was never born, so too can G-d never die. One need not be a Judaic scholar, nor need one be steeped in Jewish philosophy to know that G-d is infinite. One need merely look at the English translation of Adon Olam, arguably among the best known liturgical selections in Judaism, to be reminded that G-d was, is, and will be. In contradistinction, Christianity “remedied” this astonishing concept, by introducing both the birth (Christmas) as well as the death (Easter) of a part of what is known as the Holy Trinity. Judaism (begrudgingly) concedes that G-d can be ignored and abandoned. Yet in no way, will ignoring G-d or abandoning G-d lead G-d to disappear, much less die. By no means do I claim to be an anthropologist, but I cannot help but feel, that as long as humans have contemplated the divine, there were those who either denied G-d’s existence or claimed that once upon a time G-d did exist, but no longer does. But for one with rabbinical ordination (Jewish Theological Seminary) to espouse such a view? Gevald!
Story has it, that back in 1961, Richard Rubenstein met with the theologian Heinrich Gruber, dean of a Protestant church in East Berlin. In addition to holding the German people responsible for the Holocaust (collective guilt), Heinrich Gruber wistfully remarked, “it must be that it was G-d’s will that Hitler did what he did”. Rather than offer Heinrich Gruber a tutorial on “Bechirah Chofsheet” or “freedom of choice”, a principle of Judaism, which teaches that G-d deliberately refrains from intervening in human behavior, Richard Rubenstein did the exact opposite. He saw the German theologian’s remark as an impetus for reassessing G-d’s role in the Holocaust. Rather than erroneously hold G-d responsible for the murder of six million of our people, as so many of our people are wont to do, Richard Rubenstein chose to dismiss G-d’s existence. By doing so, he fell prey to an age-old human failing. Whenever it happens that G-d does not fit into the theological framework you have constructed, you have the choice of either dismissing that framework or dismissing G-d. Richard Rubenstein opted for the latter.
Two of my many shortcomings as a rabbi is that I do not see it as a priority to change people’s minds about G-d. Far be it for me to challenge people’s beliefs or lack thereof a supreme being. I am much more interested in old-fashioned ideas, such as davening and teaching. Yet, as laissez-faire as I am when it comes to Jewish laity, that is how demanding I am when it comes to Jewish leadership, particularly religious leadership. Accordingly, the only response I have for a graduate of a rabbinical seminary who denies the existence of G-d, is “Shanda”, a Yiddish word that means an embarrassment. It is simply beyond me how a Jewish theologian can argue that the Holocaust invalidates the idea of an omnipotent, benevolent deity who safeguards Jews as a chosen people. Would that same Jewish theologian who is prepared to invalidate the idea of an omnipotent deity who safeguards Jews because of national catastrophe also be prepared to invalidate the idea of an omnipotent deity because of a national miracle? Perhaps in neglecting the existence of G-d, deity deniers have also neglected the term “She’ereet Yisroel (Shearith Israel) or remnant of Israel, a term that is in my opinion synonymous with Am Yisroel. Put differently, do we not recognize that as much as we Jews are a people, we are the remnant of a people?
As one who prays that G-d believes in me and finds time for me, it would seem that the very least I can do, is believe in G-d and find time for G-d in return.