THE GOD THING
Rabbi David Walk
It's becoming more and more accepted in the contemporary world of cognitive psychology that belief in God (most of that group, of course, writes 'god') is a result of evolutionary forces. There are a variety of compelling ideas of how human minds have evolved to be susceptible to various beliefs in the supernatural. For example, if it were an evolutionary advantage for human beings to believe that omnipotent deities would punish them if they did wrong, they would always do right. So, successful societies and gene pools developed with these beliefs. Now, that's cool, but what do we do with that discovery? Well, it seems that we use this new research to reinforce whatever position we started out with. The atheist says, 'See, belief in God is an illusion built into the synapses of our brains.' The believer says, 'Amazing, God designed us in such a way that it is by virtue of those processes that we have knowledge of the Infinite.' We, generally use information to further entrench us in our previously held core conclusions. We theists could find solace in the vast number of believers all around us (89% of Americans believe in God according to a 2014 Pew survey and 100% of Congress according to every political speech I've ever heard), but seeing how these people vote, how can I have faith in what they believe? Anyway, this is a pertinent topic, because the mitzvah to believe in God is, indeed, in this week's Torah reading.
So, why do we believe in God? Because He told us to! I know that's a bit circular, but we have the reprise of the Ten Commandments this week in which God declares: I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6). Our belief in God is predicated on our collective memory. God, sort of demonstrated the Divine presence before demanding that we believe in the existence of a Deity. We are results oriented rather than philosophical about our belief in the Creator. As I was becoming religious in the Sixties, the most important factor in my 'discovering God,' was Jewish history. For me there were no philosophic proofs or miraculous epiphanies. I just read a lot of history and found that our continued survival as a people was too improbable (perhaps like Peabody's Improbable History) to be a result of chance occurrences. I know that it's not a proof, just supporting evidence, and many may not find this approach compelling. But I'm not in the business of convincing other people to believe. I just try to share our rich heritage, and it doesn't concern me if some of my listener's are agnostic, and appreciate my classes for 'cultural reasons'. God is the cine qua non of the religious life, but we accept it because of the historical relationship forged during the exodus. All I have to believe is that Jewish history is pretty amazing, and God is its architect.
Once I accept this premise, that God has designed Jewish destiny, now, as an associate of this club, I accept certain members' rules. The most important of them, I believe, are also in this week's parsha. They're in the first chapter of shema. After we profess our belief in the one, unique God, we are enjoined to love that God with all our hearts, souls and resources. Then we're required to study and share the supporting material for this relationship. Okay, but let's get back to that love issue. How exactly do we love God? The Sifre (Halachic Medrash on Devarim) says: One doesn't know how to love God, so the text instructs us 'These words which I command you shall be on your heart.' That in this way you will come to know the One Who spoke and brought the world into being. Maimonides quotes and expands on this idea: From this it is clear that meditation will lead to understanding, and then a feeling of enjoyment and love will follow automatically (Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Commandments, 3). He expands on this idea by explaining that the verse 'You shall love God,' means to make Him beloved among the creatures as your father Avraham did… because this powerful love caused him to call out to all mankind to believe in God. So too, you shall love Him to the extent that you draw others to Him. This is very inspiring; study brings to love which causes me to inform others.
That's a wonderful explanation for scholarly types, but what about the rest of us? The Sfat Emet comes to our rescue. The second Gerer Rebbe says that the philosophers (it's clear that he had Maimonides in mind, because he quoted from him in the piece) were troubled by the applicability of this command to love God for those of us in this world, so very distant from God and heaven. But he answers that it's really quite simple, because we have in our very being a strong link and relationship with God. Our souls are strongly bonded to their root in heaven. Elsewhere, the Rebbe says that the very question of how could God command us to bend our nature towards loving God, contains the most powerful answer. God is really informing us that it is in our nature to love God with all our being. The mitzvah is to reassure us and comfort us with the knowledge that we are capable and programmed to bond with God.
This is an extremely comforting idea, and is annually delivered on the Shabbat of Nachamu or consolation. Normally we say that the name comes from the first word in the haftorah, but it also derives from the content of the parsha. On Tisha B'av we were so saddened by the thought that our ties to God were severed by the many catastrophes catalogued on that day of national tragedy, but this command to love God reassures us that we are capable of that affection, because through Divine love, God formed us with that capacity. That's the greatest comfort of all.