Lately, a strange feeling has gotten hold of me. I am not yet able to fully articulate it, but something tells me that God is relocating to a different residence. He has hired a moving company and they are at this time loading all His furniture and possessions into a van and awaiting His instructions as to the destination. The truth is He’s been thinking for a long time about moving but has not yet done so because we, in our ignorance, are still busy visiting His old home, completely blind to the fact that the curtains have been taken down, most of His furniture has already been removed, and He is standing in the doorway, dressed in His jacket and ready to go. He nevertheless listens to us, smiling and feeling sorry for us that in our utter blindness we still believe we are sitting comfortably in His living room, chatting and having coffee with Him, while in fact He is sitting on the edge of His chair, gazing longingly at the door, dreaming of His new home.
Synagogues – whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – are no longer His primary residence. Surely some of the worshippers are pious people who try to communicate with their Creator, but overall, the majority of these places have become religiously sterile and spiritually empty. So God is moving to unconventional minyanim and places such as Israeli cafes, debating clubs, community centers, unaffiliated religious gatherings, and atypical batei midrash. The reason is obvious. In some of those places people are actually looking for Him. And that is what He loves; not those who have already found Him and take Him for granted. He is moving in with the young people who have a sense that He is there but cannot yet find Him. It gives Him a thrill. In some of these cafes He encounters young men sporting ponytails, without kippot, but with tzitziyot hanging out of their T-shirts, praying in their own words, attempting to find Him. In secular yeshivot, He meets women in trousers and mini-skirts who are earnestly arguing about what it means to be Jewish and who kiss mezuzot when they enter a fashion show. Then there are those who, to His delight, are keen on putting on tefillin once in a while and do this with great excitement; or who enthusiastically light Shabbat candles Friday night and can get into a serious discussion about Buddhism and how to combine some of its wisdom with Kabbalah and incorporate it into Jewish practice.
No, they don’t do it because it is tradition, or nostalgia, as their grandparents did, but because they sincerely want to connect, to grow and become better, deeper and more authentic Jews, but at their own pace and without being told by others what they ought to do. They won’t go for the conventional outreach programs, which try to indoctrinate them. No, they strive to come closer because of an enormous urge and inner explosion of their neshamot. No better place for God to be, even if these attempts may not always achieve the correct goals and are sometimes misdirected.
At these unconventional sites, theological discourses take place over a glass of beer, and the participants talk deep into the night because they can’t get enough of this great stuff called Judaism. Many of these people want to study God and understand why He created the world and what the meaning of life is all about. What is the human condition? What is a religious experience? How do we confront death? What is the meaning of Halacha? What are we Jews doing here in this strange universe? They realize that life becomes more and more perplexing, and these questions are therefore of radical importance. These are, after all, eternal issues. Who wants to live a life that passes by unnoticed? It is in this mysterious stratosphere that God loves to dwell. He can’t get enough of it.
Regrettably, His interest wavers when He enters conventional synagogues. He finds little excitement there. People, including myself, seem to go through the motions, activate their automatic pilot, do what they are told, say the words in the prayer book, and go home to make Kiddush. Few are asking questions on how to relate to God, why they are Jewish and what their lives really are all about. Many do not want to be confronted with these nasty issues. They only disturb their peace of mind. A nice, conventional dvar Torah is good enough. After all, everything has already been discussed and resolved. Regular synagogue visitors – again, like me – only speak to Him when they need Him, but almost nobody ever speaks about Him or hears Him when He calls for help in pursuing the purpose of His creation.
So God is moving to more interesting places. He laughs when He thinks of the old slogan, “God is dead.” It was a childhood disease. He knows we learned our lesson. It is too easy, too simplistic, and has not solved anything. He knows that He has not yet been replaced with something better. Oh yes, there are still run-of-the-mill scientists who believe that they have it all worked out. Some neurologists sincerely believe that “we are our brains” and that our thinking is nothing more than sensory activity. They seem to believe that one can find the essence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by analyzing the ink with which the composer wrote this masterpiece. There are even Nobel Prize winners who believe that we will soon enter God’s mind and know it all, no longer needing Him. They are like the man who searches for his watch in the middle of the night. When asked why he is looking under the street lamp, if he lost his watch a block away, he answers: “This is the only place where I can see anything.” These scientists have still not realized that there are more things, on earth and in heaven, than their research will ever grasp. They have convinced themselves that they are merely objective spectators and have not yet understood that they themselves are actors in the mysterious drama of what is called life.
And God simply winks. During the duration of this long-term disease beginning in the nineteenth century, antibodies have been developing to fight against the denial of His very being. Although atheism is still alive and kicking, many have become immune to all these simplistic ideas. Over the years, more and more antitoxins have accumulated, and we are now stunned by the fact that He, after all, may indeed be in our midst. Suddenly, an outdated hypothesis has come to life again. God is a real possibility, and we had better become aware of that.
But here’s the catch: While the religious establishment is now shouting from the rooftops “We told you so,” it has not yet grasped that this is completely untrue. The discovery of God did not happen because of conventional religion but in spite of it.
The truth is that the great shift concerning God took place far away from the official religious establishment. It is in fact a miracle that some people continued believing in God while religion often did everything to make this impossible. For centuries the church blundered time after time. Since the days when Galileo proved the Church wrong, it was constantly forced to change its position. And even then it did so reluctantly. The enormous loss of prestige that religion suffered because of it is beyond description. God was pushed into the corner. Not because He was not there, but because He was constantly misrepresented by people who spoke in His name. Since the Renaissance, many other great minds have moved the world forward; and while several may have missed the boat, a large number of them introduced radical new perspectives of the greatest importance. Yet, the Church’s only response was to fight them tooth and nail until, out of utter necessity, when all its arguments had run out, it had to succumb and apologize once again for its mistakes. Time and again, religion lagged behind in sharing the victory of new scientific and philosophical insights. Ironically, long before the Church officially sanctioned these new discoveries, they were already part and parcel of the new world. As always, the imprimatur came too late.
And so religion paid a heavy price. Its territory became smaller and smaller. The constant need for capitulation made many people leave the world of religion and opt for the secular approach. And the story is not over yet. Scientists are now discussing the possibility of creating life forms in the laboratory that do not depend on DNA to survive and evolve. In all likelihood, several religious leaders will fight this again, with force and ferocity, and will probably have to succumb once more when they can no longer deny the hard facts of science.
But what was happening in the Jewish religious world? While it cannot be denied that Judaism, too, got caught up in all these debates, and quite a few staunch traditionalists were not much better than some of the church fathers, the overall situation within Judaism was much more receptive to scientific developments. While the Church declared in one authoritative voice— often the synod— that these new scientific discoveries were outright heresy, such pronouncements never took place in the synagogue. This is because Judaism is so different from other religions. Positions of unconditional belief were never its main concern. They were always debated, but never finalized as was the case with the Church. What kept Judaism busy was the question of how to live one’s life while living in the presence of God and one’s fellow man, as expressed in the all-encompassing halachic literature. Because of that, it did not see scientific discoveries as much of a challenge. There was also a strong feeling that scientific progress was a God-given blessing. The greatest Jewish religious thinker of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, was even prepared to give up on the concept of creation ex nihilo if it would be proven untrue. Although he was attacked for some of these radical and enlightened ideas, the general attitude was: let science do its thing, and if we were wrong in the past because we relied on the science of those days, we will now rectify our position. Even when the Talmud made scientific statements, many—although certainly not all—understood them to be the result of scientific knowledge of the day, and not sacrosanct. And even when these debates became more intensive, it was never argued that opposing views should be absolutely silenced. There was no final authority in matters of belief, no Jewish synod. (1) At the same time, many sages warned against making science into an idol that is all-knowing and can solve life’s riddles.
Nominally a great age of scientific inquiry, ours has actually become an age of superstition about the infallibility of science; of almost mystical faith in its non-mystical methods; above all…of external verities; of traffic-cop morality and rabbit-test truth. (2)
But today all this has changed. In many Orthodox circles, Judaism’s beliefs have become more holy than the pope. Suddenly, there is an attempt to outdo old- fashioned Catholicism; to insist that the world is actually nearly 5,800 years old; that the creation chapter must be taken literally; that seven days consist of twenty-four hours each and not one minute more; that there is no foundation to the theory of evolution; and that the Talmud’s scientific observations came straight from Sinai. That this happened in the past, when there was limited scientific knowledge, is understandable; but that such claims are still made today is downright embarrassing. It makes us blush. We can laugh about it only because the hopelessness of some of these ideas has already passed the point of being disputable. They have faded into flickering embers soon to be extinguished.
Surely it could be argued that possibly science will change its mind. But if the core beliefs of Judaism are not undermined (and they are not!), and as long as there is no indication that science will change its mind in the near future, there is no need to reject these scientific positions. And let us never forget that it is not even completely clear what these core beliefs are! So why fight modern science? (3)
The incredible damage done by doing so is beyond description. It makes Judaism laughable and, in the eyes of many intelligent people, completely outmoded. It makes it impossible to inspire many searching souls who know what science teaches us. If not for this mistaken understanding of Judaism, many people would not have left the fold and could actually have enjoyed Judaism as a major force in their lives.
And it is here that many of us, including myself, are at fault. We blame the Synagogue for this failure, as we blamed the Church hundreds of years ago. Many of us have said, “Judaism has failed”; “It is outdated”; “I am getting out.” But such statements are as unfair as they are illogical. Judaism is not an institution external to us, which one can abandon as one quits a hockey club. We are the Synagogue, and we are Judaism. When Galileo revolutionized our view concerning the solar system, it was not only the Church that failed; we all failed. Those who from the perspective of Galileo claim that the Church was backward are reasoning post factum.
We must realize that while Judaism consists of core beliefs and values that are eternal and divine, it is also the product of the culture during which time it developed. That, too, is part of God’s plan and has a higher purpose. And when history moves on and God reveals new knowledge, the purpose is to incorporate that into our thinking and religious experience. Ignoring this is silencing God’s voice.
Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development. (4)
That is why God is relocating. He doesn’t want to live in a place where His ongoing creation is unappreciated and even denied.
We have replaced God with prayers, no longer realizing to Whom we are praying. We even use Halacha as an escape from experiencing Him. We are so busy with creating halachic problems, and so completely absorbed by trying to solve them, that we are unaware of our hiding behind this practice so as not to deal with His existence. In many ways this is understandable. Since the days of the Holocaust, we have refused to confront the problem of His existence due to the enormity of the evil, which He allowed to happen. So we threw ourselves into Halacha to escape the question. But while the problem of God’s involvement in the Holocaust will never be solved, we must realize that the purpose of Halacha is to have an encounter with Him, not just with the Halacha. Halacha is the channel through which we can reach Him, not just laws to live by. Notwithstanding the incomprehensibility of the Holocaust, we must return to God. It’s high time we realize that His being is of a total different nature than we have ever imagined. God can only be understood in a way that is similar to the relationship between a computer hard disk and what you see on the screen. What you see on the screen is totally different from what is inscribed in the hard disk. You can examine the inside of the disk using the most powerful microscope, but you will see nothing even slightly resembling pictures, colors or words. We are mistaken when we picture God based on the world screen. In no way does it reveal the actual contents of the hard disk, God Himself. All we know is that God’s ways—which we see only through the external sense of sight—is somehow related to the disk. The problem is that we believe we can have a good look at God by watching the screen. But we haven’t the slightest clue of what is actually going on in the disk. The Holocaust will always remain an enigma, but it can never deny the Divine disk. (4)
It is in those who are still uncomfortable with God that new insights about Him are formed. And it will be in those uneasy environments that Judaism will be rediscovered and developed. The need for religious transcendence, and for the spiritual thread that keeps many young people on their toes, is enormous. Numerous secular people are joining a new category of spiritual theologians. Matters of weltanschauung are pivotal to many secular Jews now. The problem is that for them, and for the religious, the Torah is transmitted on a wavelength that is out of range of their spiritual transistors’ frequency. Yes, we turn on the radio, but we hear strange noises and unusual static. There is serious transmission failure. We are no longer sure where the pipelines are. God has relocated.
In the world of physics, matters are becoming more and more hazy. Our brains are penetrating places where well-established notions, such as matter and substance, have evaporated. They have been transformed to puzzling phenomena. They have moved, and God has moved with them. Science is becoming intangible, and it’s happening at a speed that we can’t keep up with. It puts us in a difficult position and causes us anxiety. We are all living in exile, within a mystical landscape. Those who are aware of this are alive; those who are not have left this world unwittingly.
The question is whether we move our synagogues to where God is now dwelling. Will we, the religious, live up to the expectations of the young people in cafes and discussions groups who have preceded us? Will we apologize to them and join in their discussions, creating a real religious experience out of our synagogue service? Or will we, as usual, stay put, fight the truth, and then be put to shame?
When will we move Judaism to the front seat so that it once again becomes the leader instead of a follower?
Will we move to God’s new habitat, or are we still drinking coffee in His old home where the curtains have been removed and He is long gone?
(With thanks to my dear friend Y.D. Zirkind for his comments, Dutch author G.Bomans and C. Shapiro for her editorial help. The ideas expressed, however, are solely mine.)
Mike Miller says
Rabbi Cordozo is one of the few Jews who understands that authentic Judaism is the search for subjective uncertainty. I think that it is the pursuit of absolute certainty particularly by the “observant” that kills the possibility of Hashem to grow bigger as the world progresses.
Anna Schlesinger says
Many thanks Rabbi Cardozo. You say it is your thoughts, but many cannot help but identify, even though many are reluctant.
Maybe I shouldnt say, but the “Mitzva Brigade” many I think are too involved,,, quick a Mitzva and dont think about the real meaning.
My father z”l used to say.. what do you think a Mitzva is.. is it a someone
in the heavens counting on a computer..how many have you done today!
I never liked.. and all should be well, bribery… do a Mitzva
and you will be rewarded, promises of this and that, family, health, parnassa, especially near the Yom Tovim when the papers are blasted with the adverts, and names of famous Rabbonim.. When it doesnt
materialize…many can question..what is this religion, frum and non-frum alike?
May I ask..I say many names for refuah.. I found a name from you.
Long time ago..
A close friend of your family Beila Bat Tzippora. What is the position now.
Wish you and family
ps. I send your articles to a good friend of mine in Manchester, UK.
Shes an avid reader of them.
I agree totally with this article. Once a month I get a powerful “G’d-connection” by going to the inspiring service of Nava Tehila, with rabbi Ruth GanKagan, (f) where there is praying, ecstatic chanting and dancing, accompanied by musical instruments (acoustic). The service takes up 2 1/2 hours and it is the religious highlight of my month.
Chabad attracted me way back when in the Netherlands, but after I read the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s explanation that G’d really created the world as many years ago as a literal reading of Tenach would say, and that He created all these so-called older archeological finds with it – Chabad lost me forever.
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo says
Thanks for your observations about God is relocating.
I am pleased to hear about Nava Tehila. ( I think I once set in a panel with the Rabbi.)
Let us not forget that it was the chassidic movement which was very much the big mover getting more spirituality in to the prayers.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe z.l. made indeed a big mistake in the matter of the years of the universe but other great orthodox thinkers strongly disagreed. In fact there is a kabbalistic text which clearly states that the world is millions of years old long before science said so.
Een fijne dag!
Michael Schneider says
I read your latest mail in shock, amazement, happiness and hope. That may be due to the fact that as an atheist and an actor by profession who comes from the field of science I misunderstood it!
I hope you won’t be upset you if I say that it is strange to me that you don’t embrace the Jewish Jesus (or maybe you do) as one of our greatest Jews as, like me, you feel that that he is one. As far as science is concerned, as I have mentioned before, it lives to be proved wrong in order for it to progress as opposed to religions which hate and mostly refuse to agree to be shown mistaken and become ossified.
As I said, I may be wrong in my assessment of your view of our religion and those which sprouted from it but with all due respect,
I don’t think so.
With love and respect,
Harvey Green says
I could not agree with you more. As a person who is a regular synagogue goer, we do everything by rote and spend more time gossiping or complaining about the service than prayng.
my remedy is simple. i see the Almighty in the sunrise, sunset, the miracles of nature and the return in spring of life as vibrant as ever.
i am quite jealous of the middle aged Rabbis and thinkiners living in Safat and going into the fields to welcome the Shabbat.
the rabbinate is stagnant and out of touch as they peer down to us from their lofty pedestals. they need to return to earth and bring sense back into judaism
Kol Hakavod to you and Shabbat Shalom
David Simen says
This essay was beautifully written, but I think it presents a false dichotomy. Not all synagogues are bastions of literalism, where any suggestion that scientific knowledge, the product of generations of human minds building on each other’s ideas, are dismissed wherever they disagree with a literal understanding of Tora (writ large). I believe that many people in my minyan are constantly looking to become closer to God, a task that can never be accomplished but should nevertheless never be abandoned. The wearing of a kippa is really just a symbol; Yalqut Yosef, for example, admits that nowhere is there such a commandment, although like many other authors, he labels it commendable. But a commitment to Halacha is, in my opinion, part of a commitment to loving God. It’s just not everything. My synagogue has lots of small study groups, not 1-on-1 havrutas but really self-organized mini-classes, where people study Talmud or Qabbala or even parashat hashavua with an eye toward greater insight into how God interacts with the world.
Anyway, my point was simply that one should not dismiss “traditional” Judaism as hidebound and unwilling to live in the modern world, unwilling to question. I don’t know whether all synagogue communities are *created* equal, but they certainly don’t all end up that way.
Maurice and Meira Hockman Sandton, South Africa says
Dear Rabbi Cardoza shavua tov from Sandton.
Even before davening maariv I had to write to you to say what an amazing essay you have just written.
We download every one of your ‘Thoughts to Ponder’. Together with chief Rabbi Sack’s posting on the parasha of the week these are the two shiurim we read and discuss in our garden every Shabbat afternoon. They provide us with the inspiration that so difficult to find here in South Africa.
It is not only the younger generation that are looking for inspiration but us 60- something year-old’s as well.
You so very eloquently expressed the very frustrations that we feel as well. We constantly feel out on a limb as scientists (actually a doctor and a mathematician) who are also Shomrei Shabbat , when we try to discuss these issues with our rabbis here in Sandton. Meira has dubbed them the post modern flat Earth Society.
I read your essay with growing incredulity as you described are very feelings.
It was amazing to know that somebody of your stature shared our thoughts.
We look forward to more “Thoughts to Ponder”and hope to meet you again in the near future.
Maurice and Meira Hockman
I salute you,
very few people have the courage to really understand and communicate such values, and further have the courage to convey their opinion in such an unambiguous manner. People living in the religious Jewish environment are living in fear of change and are nervous as to how that effects their “supposed” connection to g-d.
Most visionaries live before their time and their ideas are so strong that the environment can not accept them.Some people will listen and agree but most people will just go the traditional route and follow mainstream.
Consequences in life eventually mold us,life (g-d) has an interesting way of pushing through its/his message,it will take time but eventually your vision as described will be realized.The new generation will show us the way, as they have already started doing.
Sandee Holleb says
This is a truly insightful article presented in a most accessible manner. As a Reform synagogue-regular, I join many of my friends in the search for God. I do so within the context of the synagogue because I have my children have been educated there as was I to the endless possibilities that can answer the Who/What is a Jew. The search is glorious and as infinite the the Infinite One. My rabbi says that there are so many physical doors in our synagogue allowing each of us to enter in our own way. So we nurture those who seek, with or without tallit or sometimes!
David Nitkin says
Rabbi Cardozo’s insights are many although his prescriptions lamentably few.
His layered thesis that G-d has thoughtfully abandoned the traditional synagogue and that Orthodoxy’s denial of science and learning has been counterproductive and alienating to the masses of our people for generations are right on.
His refusal to acknowledge the secular, questioning yet serious, Jew within Orthodoxy/today’s Jewish community is part of the problem.
Rabbi Cardozo’s acceptance of the unknowability of G-d’s hand in the shoah is not satisfactory for most or any serious morally-questioning Jew.
His solution is to move synagogues to where G-d is dwelling in hevruta, discussions groups, and secular spiritual questing, whereas he should follow his thesis and, better ask, where does G-d want us to go? This refusal to focus on what G-d wants of us, rather than how we keep up with science and change, is all too often the hallmark of discussions about the future of the synagogue.
Shalom shalom, Rabbi Cardozo.
I thought that the Torah was given to Moshe on mount Sinai for the children of Israel, five books and last book was a explanation of Moshe to the children of Israel. (and for every human on earth, One law)
That is all we need and to be honest to our consciene knowing good and bad!
When did the Rabbis, for the first time created Jews, at that time there where only the children of Israel.
Only honesty created unity.
May all the children be blessed by the Only One the Holy One the God of Israel Y-H-W-H.