Jay Michaelson on the Elephant in the Room: “Belief in God” is not a Jewish Value
Judaism would be better off without the phrase “belief in God.” First, it is a Christian phrase, not a Jewish one, and it suggests that the essence of religion is faith – a Christian value. Second, the phrase implies a certain kind of God – a God in which one either does or does not believe, probably an anthropomorphic God, a cosmic puppetmaster who sorts the bad people from the good, and makes the rain fall.
This naïve God-concept may be popular in the media, but it is not the God of reflective Judaism. Rabbi Moses Cordovero, a great theologian and Kabbalist, called anthropomorphic ideas of God “foolish,” and insisted that we think of God not as some Big Man in the Sky but as filling every atom of creation itself. Rabbi Moses Maimonides, Judaism’s foremost philosopher, saw traditional God-language as a mere entryway toward more sophisticated philosophical reflection on unity and morality.
For these and generations of other Jewish theologians, God does not exist – God is existence itself. “God” is the world personalized, addressed not as It but as You. It is how we humans relate to the inexpressible mystery of being alive, which reveals itself not just in religion but in art, love, and delight as well. “Belief in God” is a phrase we should consign to the lexicographic graveyard. “Experience of wonder” (Heschel) is better. So is Love.
A few years ago, I wrote a book called Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, which conveyed some of these rarified philosophical and mystical notions in a contemporary idiom. Most readers I’ve met have expressed gratitude and appreciation for the book. Some, though, seemed to feel as though something had been taken away. One newspaper asked “Is Jay Michaelson’s God too mushy?” Another wondered whether the Ein Sof, the Infinite, the All, was enough of a father-figure to inspire morality.
But the contrary is true. It’s not mushy to think seriously about God and let go of cherished myths. Grown-up people need a grown-up God concept. Imagine if you stopped reading at the age of thirteen – would you have any appreciation for literature? Yet this is exactly what most American Jews experience in their religious education. Just when they’re ready to start asking serious questions, the bar mitzvah is over and so is Jewish thought.
This has consequences. In my new book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, I talk about how my naïve God-concept kept me from coming out until late in my twenties. I thought God would hate me for being gay, and it was only after coming out that I realized that what brings me closer to the experience of “God” is honesty, openness, and intimacy. It took a while for me to let go of stories I’d been told since childhood, but doing so helped me open to authentic spirituality and meaningful religious life. Judaism without a naïve “belief in God” is stronger, healthier, and more open to the possibility of holiness than a Judaism which clings to it. So am I.
Jay Michaelson is a writer, scholar, and actvist whose work focuses on the intersections of religion, spirituality, sexuality, and law.