Monday, October 2, 2017

Yom Kippur 5778: The God Survey

The God Survey
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, Illinois
Yom Kippur morning 5778
September 30, 2017

An article online recently chronicled the demise of the fifty-year-old Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE.  The work, now up to six volumes, was the brainchild of University of Wisconsin professor Frederick Cassidy beginning in 1962.  Over the last half-century, DARE engaged in fieldwork to chronicle new regional words and safeguard local words and phrases whose usage is dwindling.  But funding has run out for this wide-reaching project, which chronicled non-regional slang words and colloquialisms, and preserved regionalisms and dialectic differences throughout America.[1]  We run the risk that future generations will not be able to identify a “bizmaroon” or “doodinkus,” or know what it means to “acknowledge the corn.”[2]

It’s a natural part of human evolution that we continually find new ways to express ourselves, particularly in relation to complex concepts and amorphous ideas.  This is particularly evident when we begin to talk about God.  It is rare that one finds two individuals who have precisely the same conception of Who or What the divine is.  Even the great sage Maimonides taught that one cannot accurately define God from positive attributes; we can only state with certainty what God is not.[3]  No two experiences are the same.  Your mileage may vary.  Certainly, part of the beauty of progressive Jewish thought is that we are expressly given permission to determine for ourselves what our relationship with God will be, and to what degree a spiritual connection will play a role in our lives.

Over the past month, I invited Sinai Temple members to participate in “The God Survey.”  This enterprise was based on work done by Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro at another Sinai Temple—in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Rabbi Shapiro designed a number of questions to help his congregation explore their individual connections to God or a God-concept.  Later, Rabbi Shapiro published a book about his findings, and Reform Judaism magazine shared excerpts of the questionnaire, inviting responses from across the movement.[4]  The survey we conducted here was adapted from those earlier questions.  Nearly sixty individuals responded—not a bad response rate considering the limited time that the questions were accessible.  That’s approximately ten percent of the congregation.  Respondents ranged widely across the various ages represented within our congregation.  About seventy percent of those who participated were born Jewish, while thirty percent came to Judaism later in life.

An old joke claims that if you ask a question of two Jews, you’ll receive three opinions.  So it comes as little surprise that the answers to the survey were wide-ranging.  But more than 86% indicated that they spend some time wondering about God, and 90% indicated that they felt close to God at times.[5]

To a large degree, our feelings about God are very personal, shaped by our experiences in life and our understanding of the world in which we live.  The poet Langston Hughes wrote:

In an envelope marked:
God addressed me a letter. 
In an envelope marked:
I have given my answer. [6]

In this short poem, Hughes states what many participants in the survey also sought to convey: that a relationship with God is inherently individualized.  Still, within the survey, some general trends emerged.

Those who completed the survey were asked to choose from a number of options indicating times when they have felt close to God.  By far, the most popular selection was, “When I have been outdoors and experienced nature’s wonders.”  Many people also found a close connection to God during worship, with nearly half of respondents indicating that they felt God’s presence during High Holiday and Shabbat services.  Others indicated that the heightened emotion of life cycle events helped them to find a sense of God’s nearness.  A handful also indicated that they occasionally felt distant from God— such as when viewing the current state of the world, or when helping a friend or loved one navigate through illness or setbacks.

More than half of the participants agreed that God exists and is present in nature.  By a wide margin, participants also feel that God directs us to engage with the world by feeding the hungry, nurturing the sick, and engaging in deeds of justice.

Our Torah portion for this afternoon, from the Book of Leviticus, contains the so-called “Holiness Code.”  In it, we are challenged, “kedoshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem.—be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am Holy.”[7]  In order to strive toward fulfillment of this sacred call, we must understand what it truly means to be holy, to live in emulation of God.  The responses to the survey suggest that many of us are taking the time to think about what such an endeavor entails.  Yet it is clear that some questions remain.

I often wonder if the grass is greener in other religious traditions.  When I interact with my Christian colleagues I marvel at the ease with which they can share their faith convictions.  Remember those “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets and bumper stickers from a few years back?  At least superficially, it would seem that they and their parishoners know exactly where to turn, exactly what is expected of them anytime they have an ethical or theological conundrum.  I am aware that I’m likely oversimplifying, and of course, throughout our history, we Jews have embraced the idea of poking and prodding at the mysteries of the universe.  We are Israel, those who are willing to wrestle with God, and so inquisitiveness is part of our birthright.

In the open response section of the survey, there were many fabulous statements and questions.  The responses were so heartfelt and insightful that they just may have given me sermon fodder for the next twenty-five years!  Here are some of the questions that were recorded:

Do You listen at all?

What could we do to further support Your presence?

How do I handle it when bad things happen to good people?

How should I live my life better?

Should we proselytize?

Where were You during the Shoah?
Where is the reset button for the universe?

What happens when we die and why is it such a mystery?

Why is the sky blue?

While I certainly don’t claim to have the definitive answers to any of these questions, I think they are worth exploring.  I’ll begin to address possible answers to some of these in our weekly email blasts.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have all the answers.”[8]  If we desire to heed the call of the Holiness Code, to lead holy lives in imitation of God’s holiness, then we should be exploring these sorts of questions.

Significant numbers of respondents to the survey agreed that evil exists in the world and that innocent people suffer without explanation—not because of God’s presence in the universe, but despite it.  This theological conundrum, known as the question of theodicy, which I spoke about a bit on Rosh Hashanah, has long dominated religious conversation.  Addressing this dilemma is an important aspect of responding to the call of the holiness code.

We know that God did not create water crises in Flint, Michigan and in Puerto Rico.  Human beings did that.

We know that God did not attempt to remove health care protections from millions of American citizens.  Human beings did that.

We know that God did not create the nuclear weapons with which a belligerent North Korea is threatening the world.  Human beings did that.

We know that God did not manufacture the guns used to terrorize Congresspersons at a baseball game, or students at school, or worshippers at church.  Human beings did that.

We know that God was not the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Stormfront, or any of the other fascist groups that have fomented racism and white supremacy within our country and throughout the world.  Human beings did that.

And because humans bear the responsibility for creating these problems within our world, it’s up to us to seek solutions.  As my colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz has noted, “Blaming God for all the bad stuff in the world is immoral.  Convenient, but immoral.  If we’re truly partners with God in the ongoing work of creation, then it is time to stand up and act like partners.”[9]  In other words, part of our pursuit of holiness requires that we lead the struggle for justice and kindness in our society.

That being said, striving toward holiness is not the same as working toward a Boy Scout or Girl Scout merit badge.  As one response to the survey noted, “We don’t have a God score.”  Now, I think the original commenter meant that, in his opinion, as good as we may and should be, humans can never become “Godly;” we can never attain a god-like status.  Still, he writes, “being better people is good enough for me.”  Another survey participant quoted a familiar statement from the old Gates of Prayer: “Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you.”[10]  We may look to God for moral guidance, but ultimately the day-to-day work of upholding society and performing acts of social justice falls to us.

Our Haftarah this morning is drawn from the Book of Isaiah.  The prophet scolds the Israelites, whom he accuses of adopting false piety—going through the motions of prayer and fasting without turning their hearts and minds and hands to deeds of goodness.  He reminds his audience that what God truly desires from us extends far beyond prayer and sacrifice:

This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.[11]

We may never be able to attain holiness at a level equivalent to God.  We may never be fully worthy of the appellation “godly.”  But we can take action, guided by God’s instruction, to make God’s presence be felt amongst us.

Author Mary Blye Kramer converted to Judaism from the Baptist faith about twelve years ago.  Her journey was not without difficulty, she notes: her husband of 30 years left her, she was called a “heretic” by a radio show host, and she lost friends and work opportunities.  In particular, Kramer had to resign from three committees with which she had volunteered at her church.

The hardest community for her to leave behind was the “homebound community,” made up of elderly members deeply entrenched in the church.   Kramer tells of the difficulty she anticipated in saying goodbye to her friend Estelle, a vivacious member of this group who had been the church’s first female deacon. 
Kramer writes:
As I sat beside her to tell her the news that was shattering my world, I stuttered. “Estelle, I know this will be tough to hear. I know you love Jesus and I know that you believe that Jesus is the way to heaven, and I know...."
Estelle interrupted me and I froze. She apparently had already heard I was converting.
"Let me tell you what I believe," she said, "I believe in you. Now let's move on. Tell me all about your spiritual journey and where you'll be converting and how you're feeling and how your family is treating you and what you've been doing this week."[12]
In this holiest season of the Jewish year, when we are thinking about our personal spiritual journeys, when we are taking stock of our lives and examining what room we have left within ourselves for a relationship with God, perhaps Estelle gives us an important starting point.  Perhaps we cannot develop our own theologies, and forge our own paths to truth, unless we first learn to believe in one another.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the campus rabbi at Northwestern University, reminds us that as we explore our liturgy throughout these High Holy Days, the “language of the liturgy is in the plural, not the singular. We're not praying for our individual selves, but for all of us.”[13]  If we continue to pray for one another, to embrace one another, to believe in one another regardless of race, class, gender, or faith, then we can strive toward holiness and draw nearer to the messianic age.

May this be our goal in the coming year, and in working to this end, may we all be deemed worthy of being inscribed in the book of life, blessing, and peace.

[1] Katherine Brooks, “An American Dialect Dictionary is Dying Out.  Here Are Some of Its Best Words.”  Published August 18, 2017 at
[2] Per the DARE dictionary, “bizmaroon” is a bullfrog, “doodinkus” is a gadget, and to “acknowledge the corn” is to admit to being drunk.
[3] See George Robinson’s article, “Maimonides’ Conception of God,” found at  Retrieved September 28, 2017.
[4] See for a story about Rabbi Shapiro’s original project.
[5] Including responses for “a little,” “a lot,” “rarely,” and “frequently.”
[6] Langston Hughes, “Personal,” originally published in 1947
[7] Leviticus 19:2
[8] As quoted in Zohar, Danah and Ian Marshall, SQ: Connecting with Our Spiritual Intelligence (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2001)
[9] Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, “Endless Pilgrimage of the Heart: The God Sermon.”  Delivered at Shir Tikvah Congregation, Minneaplois, MN, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773.  Found online at .  Thanks also to Rabbi Latz for inspiring the framing of the “human beings did that” section of this sermon.
[10] Found in Gates of Prayer, p. 157.  The companion book Gates of Understanding states that the source of this phrase is unknown; some sources attribute it to St. Augustine.
[11] Isaiah 58:6-7
[12] As found on the Facebook page of Mary Blye Kramer,  July 14, 2017.
[13] Twitter comment, posted on September 24, 2017.  Rabbi Ruttenberg’s twitter feed can be found at @TheRaDR

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