1) How do we know there really is a God?
Think of all the things that are just too brilliant, too perfect, for any person or random process to have created, and the only solution that makes sense is that there is a God. I’m not just talking about sunsets and flowers. That’s easy. When we see the wonders of nature, including all the “bad” things, like earthquakes and hurricanes, we naturally come closer to God. But what of the less obvious things? Think of Shabbat, and how perfect it is, how it helps us all to survive in a very complex world by giving all of creation a day off. What human being could have devised something so brilliant? Or Matzah – the perfect symbol for a holiday that teaches us about the hardships of slavery (ever try to get the stuff out of your teeth or carpet?) and forces us to show the world how proud we are to be Jewish (ever try explaining the stuff to non Jewish friends, most of whom love to taste it?). Who else but God could have created Matzah? The best way to imagine a universe with God is to try to imagine a universe without God.
2) Where does God come from?
Although God began before the universe, God is not complete yet. As we build a better world, in a sense we are also building God. Some Kabbalistic Jews believe that God was sort of a cosmic Humpty Dumpty, who intentionally shattered part of Godself and retreated while we began to pick up and reassemble the pieces of holiness around and within us. So part of where God comes from is around us, part is within us and part is the glue that holds it all together. And as each generation reattaches its little piece of Humpty, we are adding our piece. With each hug, each kind deed and act of tzedakkah, we are making God whole. What will make God whole? When the world is whole and there is peace everywhere.
3) If there is one God, why are there so many religions?
There are certainly lots of religions. In fact, to an extent there are as many different religions as there are people in the world. And to make it more complicated, there are as many religions as there have been people who ever lived or ever will live. That’s because each of us experiences God a little bit differently. Although we all worship the same God, and there are many similarities between religions, we are different because of our different backgrounds. While each person experiences God a little differently, it helps when groups of people “speak the same language” and share together the wisdom of prior generations. Our beautiful religion enables us to learn from many great sages of the past three thousand years. It is very important for everyone to be absolutely comfortable within his or her own religion, allowing it to be a solid “home base” from which to search for God and live a good life.
4) Does God know what I am thinking or what I will do?
When we are inspired to think a new thought, or when we are moved to help someone in need, it is God who inspires us. God is the spark that sets off the thought, but we are free to think in our own way and act as we wish. God doesn’t guide our every act, but in the big picture, I do feel that God sets a direction for each of us. We were created with enough of this “God DNA” within us to give us the potential to choose to do good. Usually it is only after the fact that we reflect on something we’ve done or an idea we’ve had and we think, “God must have wanted it this way.”
5) Can praying make someone better (well)?
Praying brings God into our thoughts and actions. It’s like rubbing two sticks together to create a fire. Sometimes it works, especially if others are there doing the same thing and helping you out. At other times the sticks are too wet or the time is just not right. But even then, by rubbing the sticks together, it keeps us in practice and helps to dry out the kindling so that perhaps the next time it will “take.” Once we ignite that spark, and bring God more into our lives, there is a sense of healing within us that can help us get better when we are ill; and it can help others to set off the same spark within them. Prayer can do all that, but not all the time.
6) Does God care who wins the World Series or Super Bowl?
It was on Simhat Torah of 1986 that I learned the answer to that question. The night before, my beloved Boston Red Sox had blown the ultimate chance to win a World Series, losing the sixth game to the Mets in heartbreaking fashion. I cried for half the night, wondering why God could allow this to happen. Then, the following morning, I caught myself crying again while dancing with the Torah. At that point I stopped and wondered, what truly do I care about more: a sports team or the Torah? Which one had people given their lives for over the centuries? Which one had taught me how to live a good life? Which one had instilled people with hope during times much darker than these? I decided that it was time to stop crying and start rejoicing with the Torah. But I also understood that sports are important, because my caring so deeply for the Red Sox is what trained me as a youth how to care for things that are even more important. In that sense, then, God does indeed care about the World Series and Superbowl?
7) Does God understand Hebrew best?
God understands all languages equally, including sign language and body language. Even computer language. When we communicate in any form, when we make connections, to some degree God is present. Hebrew helps Jews to experience God best because it connects us to so many things:
a) to the Jewish people, past, present and future, all over the world;
b) to our own grandparents and great grandparents, many of whom prayed these same exact prayers in Hebrew;
c) to the State of Israel, our homeland, and all who live there;
d) to language itself: Hebrew letters are so old that they trace themselves back to the first forms of communication. We can see these ancient letters on old coins and in museums. Hebrew is a language so modern that it can spell Coca Cola, and so ancient that it brings us back to the beginnings of civilization. It is a very special language indeed, one that brings us closer to God because it helps us to connect to so many others, and to ourselves.
8) Is the Bible true?
Yes. But that doesn’t mean that everything happened exactly as it is described there. I believe in evolution, but that doesn’t make the Torah’s creation story untrue. It teaches us some important lessons about people and God, about our relationship to the earth and the rest of the universe, about the importance of Shabbat and the relationship between men and women. And although I believe that the Bible is “true,” I struggle with many passages in it and can’t always agree with what it says – but I’m not alone in that. The ancient rabbis also disagreed with some things in the torah and reinterpreted them.
The Bible is true just as the fact that our being alive is true. The Bible and life are both remarkable gifts. The key is not proving that they are “true,” the key is what we do with these gifts to make the world better.
9) Does God really make miracles?
What is a miracle? I would define a miracle as something that makes someone say, “Oh my God!” Therefore, for me, by definition, miracles have something to do with God. Some miracles are done by God (a spectacular sunset, for instance), but the best miracles require the cooperation of people, things like the creation of a new baby or a new country. Israel was the answer to the prayers of many generations, but it would never have been established without much human sacrifice. So think of all the times you are so overcome that you just have to say, “My God!” Most likely, you are witnessing a miracle. And by the way, what about those times when we aren’t so amazed? Maybe, if we thought about it, we would be.
10) Why is there so much bad in a world created by a good God?
Maybe it has something to do with the Humpty Dumpty theory that God, and holiness, are shattered, and we have to put the pieces together again to make the world totally good. But I’m not so sure that “good” and “bad” can be so easily defined. Sometimes it is easy, like with Haman in the Purim story. But even there, if it weren’t for the evil Haman and his sinister plot, Purim would never have been invented! And without the evil Pharaoh, not only would we have never had Matzah balls and the Afikoman, we probably wouldn’t have gotten the Torah. And even if we had gotten the Torah, its central message (about being nice to strangers because we were slaves in Egypt) would have been missing. Without bad pizza, how could we ever learn to appreciate food pizza? The same goes for bad people.
11) Does God punish people?
Usually the punishment is a direct result of the “crime” committed, and in a sense, it comes from God. If a person “steals” by, say, cheating on a test, s/he might be caught and punished by the teacher. S/he will also not learn the material and lose out on important lessons. But the biggest punishment of all is that s/he’ll feel worse about him or herself and be less likely to trust others. When a person breaks the law, it’s because s/he feels he can’t succeed within the law. That’s sad. What’s even sadder is that with every such crime, he begins to trust others less and less, figuring that if he does it, others must be doing it too. If you add up the numerical value of the Hebrew letters spelling out God’s name, it equals the words “Ehad” (One) + “Ahava” (Love). When we feel less attached to others, less “one” with them, when there is less trust and love between people, then God is less present between them.
12) Where do people go when they die?
When you shout into an echoing canyon, and your voice comes back at you, at first loud and clear, and then less so, what happens to it in the end? Does it continue to bounce back and forth forever, just a little softer each time? In some ways, our lives are like that. Except that once we’ve shouted into the canyon, by pouring all our life’s deeds, our love and our tears, into that one cry, the echo doesn’t necessarily get softer and softer with the passing of time. Sometimes the echo gets louder over the years. Look at Moses’ echo! Sometimes a person’s life, the accumulation of his deeds, appears to be forgotten for eternity, but then a ripple effect is felt, in some form, generations later. My father dies twenty years ago, when I was a young man, and recently I discovered his name on the Internet! A person I never met was paying tribute to my Dad on that person’s website! It was like my father had come back to life. The things we do in our lives, the things we say, and the ways we show we care: these things live on, in some form, forever.