It started when a friend sent me an article about people leaving structured religion faster than new people are joining, especially 30- to 40-year- olds. The last line in the alter net.org article, “Are We Becoming an Atheist Nation? Three Reasons Young People Are Abandoning Religion,” expressed concern about the churches that young adults are leaving behind. My friend apologized, hoping I was not offended.
With a smile, I answered that I was not; I just wasn’t sure how to respond. The article said that churches are no longer challenging young people, who are better educated and feel they know more than the people on the pulpit. Rabbis take five years of post-graduate study and usually come out of seminary with at least a master’s degree. Some, like me, come to the rabbinate as a second or third career. I had been a mechanical engineer for 17 years. So I recognized that the real issue was relevancy.
Making congregations relevant to young adults is certainly a timely issue. Our new Congregation Kol Simchah focuses on who we are through our approach to young adults, as reflected in our “extended living room” style of service.
My friend asked what I thought about atheists, especially Jewish atheists.
I chuckled and said that there were atheists in our congregation, probably in every congregation. You can be Jewish and an atheist.
“So what do you say to an atheist?” he asked.
I answered with two things: 1) If you gave me a definition of G-d that you cannot accept, I would probably not believe in it either. 2) There is something IS-WAS-WILL-BE-ish about the force from which life emanates or draws its power. Let’s start out by defining G-d —YHVH — the IS-WAS-WILL-BE, as the source of that power/or life force. It’s something inherent in the way the Universe (and perhaps beyond) operates. Beyond these two points, everything else is a function of one’s definition and experience.
There was a pause as he mulled this over. I asked him what his definition of
G-d was; how did he describe what he could not accept?
What he described, I agreed, was hard to accept, perhaps impossible. Language struggles to approximate the infinite, the unknowable; it fails, sometimes miserably. G-d is about experience and feeling, not rational proofs or disproofs.
Maimonides said that we cannot describe or know G-d. All we can do is seek. When Torah describes someone as G-d-fearing, the word, yireh, can also mean seeking. Jacob sought G-d and so did Joseph. When we rejoice in the seeking, we can find joy in our everyday lives.
All of us are on a journey. What we see in the woods of life is a function of where we have searched. What we see only fits our perception and we find what we are seeking, always and in all ways.
Tikkun olam (repairing the world), helping and reaching out to people, are part of the holiness that comes from the seeking. Art and singing and dancing can also be part of the seeking. Being Jewish is about forming community to help each other on our own individual journeys. May you find joy in your seeking, may you live life fully this year.