Long before Life of Pi became a multi-million dollar film, it was the single novel that I always suggested when asked for a fiction recommendation. And to this day, it remains one of my favorite pieces of fiction, expressing in prose some of my deepest beliefs. For Yom Kippur 5773 (at at High Holy Day pulpit at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom), I chose to use this book's treatment of story to open up a conversation about what it might mean to believe in God.
A Story to Make Us Believe in God
Whenever anyone asks me to recommend a book, I always respond the same way. Life of Pi, a Novel by Yann Martel. It’s a fascinating tale with a world-changing moral, and it is my favorite piece of fiction.
In its introduction, the author tells us a story: He was working on a novel set in Portugal in 1939. Facing writer’s block, he decided to get away from all distractions and expectations by traveling to distant Pondicherry, India. There, in a coffee shop, he met an elderly Indian man. As the author is about to leave the café, the man stops him. “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”
Naturally the author was suspicious. He asked, “Does your story take place two thousand years ago in a remote corner of the Roman Empire?” No. “Does it take place in seventh-century Arabia?” No. The story starts right we are sitting and ends in your home country of Canada. “And it will make me believe in God?” the author asked. “Yes.” “That’s a tall order.” “Not so tall that you can’t reach,” the elderly man responded.
Let’s pause for a moment, like our author did.
What sort of story could make you believe in God?
Perhaps this scene will sound familiar. It’s from the short story “The Doctor and the Rabbi” by Aimee Bender.
The doctor went to see the rabbi. “Tell me, rabbi, please,” he said, “about God.”
The rabbi pulled out some books. She talked about Jacob wrestling the angel. She talked about Heschel and the kernel of wonder as a seedling that could grow into awe. She tugged at her braid and told a Hasidic story about how at the end of one’s life, it is said that you will need to apologize to God for the ways you have not lived.
“Not for the usual sins,” she said. “For the sin of living small.”
The doctor sat in his suit in his chair and fidgeted. Although he had initiated the conversation, he found the word God offensive, the same way he disliked it when people spoke about remodeling their kitchens.
“I’m sorry,” he said, standing. “I cannot seem to understand what you are saying. Are you speaking English?”
“English?” said the rabbi, closing a book. Dust motes floated off the pages into the room and caught the light as they glided upward. She wrinkled her forehead as if she was double-checking in there. “Yes,” she said.
Why is it so hard to talk about God? Because God is bigger than all the words we have.
Then how is it possible to believe in God, if God is beyond description? That’s a good question.
I’m not sure how it works here in Canada, but in the United States, we hear a great deal about God from our politicians. The sound bites that come out of the TV or radio don’t resemble the conversation between the doctor and the rabbi. They’re quick and confident, uncolored by doubt or nuance.
As you know, we have an election going on in the U.S. And you maybe even caught some of the two major parties’ nominating conventions. These events were absolutely political—the very definition of political—and true to form, God’s name was invoked again and again.
Following the conventions, the New York Times published an analysis that reports the frequency of words spoken at each event. The word God makes both parties’ Top Fifteen lists: God was named 22 times every 25,000 words at the Democratic convention, and God was named 35 times every 25,000 words at the Republican convention. The Republicans, ever eager to lower American taxes, mentioned God more than taxes, and the Democrats, who have created a campaign of hope, mentioned God more than that word as well. Both parties mentioned God more frequently than the American Dream, and God was invoked more often than either Vice Presidential candidate.
Now, most of these occurrences are couched in the phrase “God bless America,” a veritable refrain of American political discourse. But a handful of politicians made some serious claims in God’s name. Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver cited America’s diversity as one of its greatest blessings; as a diverse nation, he said, “we are best equipped to demonstrate to the rest of the world what God intended when He created us.” And Republican Senator Marco Rubio claimed that “almighty God is the source of all we have,” and therefore, “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.” Congressman Cleaver and Senator Rubio are both men of conviction, and their faith is redoubtable. Still, I simply can’t believe that God intends to vote both Democrat and Republican this November.
When politicians bring God into their politics, it reduces the infinite and ineffable into a slogan. No wonder the doctor from our story finds the word God “offensive.” The concept of God is the most important one we can dream of, but far too often it’s thrown around like any other cliché.
According to a poll conducted in September 2011, 53% of Canadians report that they “believe in God.” But we’re forced to ask: Is this the clichéd God of political conventions or something more nuanced? What does it mean to affirm in a poll that you “believe in God?” If we sat down those 53% and asked them what belief in God means to them, we could hear thousands of different answers.
Because the concept of God is bigger than any person can dare to imagine. For as long as there has been religion—and that’s a long time—human beings have struggled with knowing God, and even standing on the shoulders of countless generations of spiritual and intellectual giants, we are still no more capable than our ancestors of understanding the divine.
But on Kol Nidre, on the holiest night of the year, we are called to try. On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about stories, and I suggested that a story is a meaningful interpretation of facts. Every memory, every sensation, every invention is a story, and these stories bring order to our lives in helping us understand the world. We cannot comprehend any idea or suggest any argument that is not a story, and therefore stories are the very stuff that our lives are made of.
Thus, it is only through stories that we can seek to understand God. By definition, these stories are not facts; they do not align precisely with objective reality. But these stories are nevertheless both true and real. Indeed, our stories about God may be the closest we can come to real truth.
Tonight, I offer two stories of God. These are not stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, they are ongoing stories, imaginative descriptions that seek to make meaning out of the divine. Will they—like Life of Pi—make you believe in God? Perhaps. And perhaps they will inspire stories of your own.
The first story is that God is a person. The second story is that God is not a person. And in different ways, I believe both of them.
God is a person. Not a human being, of course, but a person nonetheless. God has emotions and intentions and, along with them, a personality.
This is the most familiar story of God, for it is the story we read in our bible. The personal God has thoughts and desires. This God acts in the world and responds to prayer. And most importantly of all, God as a person is in relationship with all living creatures, especially human beings.
The world-famous Martin Buber, twice-nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, stated: “If to believe in God means to talk about Him in the third person, then I do not believe in God. If to believe in God means to be able to talk to God, then I do believe in God.”
For Buber, God is a person just like anyone else is a person, and we know their personhood in the same way. Try this experiment: Think of a friend who isn’t here tonight. Are you thinking of someone? Now, consider how you would prove to me that your friend is a person. You might try your best to convince me that your experience of that person is true and real … but the easiest way to show me that this is a real person would be to introduce us. Once I meet your friend, I’m certain to believe in him or her. As modern Jewish philosopher Eugene Borowitz has taught, “Persons can never adequately be conceptualized. They are found, addressed, lived with, and only then truly known.”
This, too, is how we know that God is a person. Not through evidence or proof, but through relationship. Stories abound of individuals—perhaps 53% of this room—who understand deeply that they have a relationship with God. This is not an abstract God who stands as a symbol of grace or as a catch-all response to the question, “Where did we all come from?” Rather, this is a God who loves, a God who heals, and a God who cares.
Rabbi Scott Aaron tells a story about his grandmother.
When I was a toddler, I worshiped my grandmother, honestly thinking she was God. By the time I was seven, I still idolized her, but I knew that she wasn’t the God who heard the prayers we said in synagogue.
One day, I asked my grandmother why she didn’t sing the Hebrew prayers along with everyone else at services. “I don’t know the words, dear,” she said. “I don’t read Hebrew.” Dumbstruck, I asked, “If you can’t read Hebrew, how do you talk to God?” She bent down, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. God knows what I’m saying.”
Rabbi Aaron’s grandmother had a relationship with God. She didn’t have proofs or philosophies to describe it – it just was. And that was the foundation of her faith.
Stories like this one stir my heart. I am moved to hear about individuals who experience a true relationship with a personal God. Indeed, I believe these stories, and they help me believe in God.
But I do not have such a story of my own.
So I offer my second story. In this story, God is not a person.
So what is God? Mordecai Kaplan teaches that God is “not a person but a Process.” This process is “the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.” God makes a cosmos out of chaos. God transforms meaningless facts and random coincidences into the significant moments and experiences of our lives. God is the force through which we make meaning in the world. God is the bridge between my internal self and external reality, and when I cross that bridge, I elevate mere existence into life. In short, God makes the world mean something.
And there is a deeper level.
Arthur Green has written, “All of existence is holy. Every creature, whether alive and sensate or ‘inanimate,’ is nothing other than the sacred presence of Y-H-W-H, hidden and revealed through yet another of its endless masks. … [W]e are all one in Y-H-W-H.” In other words, God is All that Is. In God’s unity, we are all one. Our distinctions are real in the human realm, but on God’s level, we are joined.
As part of All that Is we share relationship with every living being. That web of relationships brings dynamic energy into the being of All that Is. That web of relationships holds the world in love. That web of relationships gives birth to our grandest desires and most intimate thoughts.
The story of God as All that Is is not found in the bible. It is a more recent Jewish story and one that resonates very powerfully with me. Even though I do not relate to All that Is as a person, I do relate to All that Is, and that relationship provides spiritual nourishment and a love of life. It is my foundational belief, and it undergirds my rabbinical service.
Is God a person? No – God is the unity of the universe, both creating and inhabiting the world.
Is God a person? Yes – God holds us in relationship and reaches out to us in compassion.
These are both stories that make me believe in God.
“But,” you might say. “These stories contradict! They cannot both be true.” Actually, I believe that they can both be true – because they are meaningful stories rather than static facts.
The main character in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi distinguishes between stories on the one hand and on the other hand, “dry, yeastless factuality.” Facts cannot contradict one another; but also, facts aren’t very interesting, and by definition they are not meaningful. Only the stories we tell about facts are meaningful, and those stories, told from individual perspectives, most certainly can contradict.
Important stories can contradict because their meaning is more important than their accuracy. Our lives are built around stories, and we, as story-tellers par excellence, are always on the look-out for stories that will bring meaning to our lives.
On Yom Kippur, we each face the challenge to look inward at the stories we are telling ourselves. We must ask ourselves—for no one else can ask for us—whether these stories are true. How have we told stories that inspire us, and when have we told stories that mimic dry, yeastless factuality? Which of our stories have embraced the rich diversity of humankind, or which have shut out people who are not like us? When have we rejected stories that yearn to bring us closer to God, and when have we let God in to our lives?
There are so many stories that Judaism would have us tell, and on Yom Kippur, we search for the ones most meaningful to us. Are we compelled by the image of God as strict judge, holding ourselves accountable for our actions? Or perhaps we are moved by the rich textures of the High Holiday music, inspired to create resonant beauty in our lives. We may be drawn to the ethical charge to “unlock the shackles of injustice,” or we may submit to the humbling practice of fasting.
On this day, we encounter many stories of God, and each of them begs for our belief. Our prayer book offers us one such story, a familiar story but one that speaks to us in new ways year after year.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth,
and the earth brought forth life,
and life gave birth to man and woman.
And they became conscious:
Aware that they were free
to create or destroy,
to live or to die.
Conscious also that they were not alone.
Slowly they became aware of a Presence
greater than themselves,
whose will must be done
if we are to endure
and become what we can be.
This vision was seen by the founders of our people.
At the Mountain they pledged themselves
and us, their children,
to live by its light,
to share it with others.
Here we stand, heirs of the past
and makers of the future--
but heavily burdened
with blindness, folly, unfaithfulness.
Can we reopen our eyes to wisdom,
to be, or hope to be, at one with the One?
This day, if any day, can make us whole.
Trembling, we pray to gain
a new heart, a new spirit.
Yom Kippur is an interweaving of stories. The story found in private reflection, the story found in public prayer, and the story found in communal repentance. Taken together, these stories knit the full fabric of the Day of Atonement, and we can wrap ourselves in it like a warm, embracing tallit.
At its finest, Yom Kippur is a story that can make us believe in God.
Perhaps it is only for a moment. But this moment can last an eternity.
 Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 2001. p. x.
 Available: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/111828/the-doctor-and-the-rabbi.
 “Emanuel Cleaver DNC Speech” Available: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0912/80770.html.
 “Transcript: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's Convention Speech.” Available: http://www.npr.org/2012/08/30/160355509/transcript-sen-marco-rubios-convention-speech.
 “Nearly Half of Canadians don’t believe in God.” Available: http://canadianatheist.com/2011/09/19/nearly-half-of-canadians-dont-believe-in-god. This article cites a poll whose results are not available to the free public at: http://www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=5328.
Quoted in Hoffman, Lawrence. The Way Into Jewish Prayer. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000. p. 15-16.
 Borowitz, Eugene. Choices in Modern Jewish Thought: A Partisan Guide. Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 1995. p. 151.
 Adapted from “How Do You Talk to God?” in Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul. Ed. Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001. p. 78-81.
 Quoted in The Way Into Jewish Prayer, 15-16.
 Quoted in Seltzer, Robert. “Mordecai Kaplan: Founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.” Available online: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Modern_History/1914-1948/American_Jewry_Between_the_Wars/Reconstructionist_Judaism/Mordechai_Kaplan.shtml.
 Green, Arthur. Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale Unviersity Press, 2010. p. 74.
 Martel 302.
 Isaiah 58:6.
 Gates of Repentance 249.
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