The other day my team was drafting out a program for Purim (it’s never too early to think about hamentaschen) and we were speaking about a particular part of the program and someone brought up a question about being Jewish and believing in God. There was an uncomfortable chortle that broke out across the table. With a smile, someone else said, “What’s God have to do with this?” (Another round of laughter)
As Jews, many of us are just uncomfortable talking about the big G-O-D. We are a rancorous people, filled with skepticism and doubt. Most Jews see Jewish life as civilization more than a religion. We care about Jewish identity and culture, and we care about each other. When asked by experts, most Jews don’t practice the ritual side of Jewish life and even less think about God on a regular basis, but they are overwhelmingly proud to be Jewish. When I teach classes of teenagers, adults and even seminarians, my students who are adept at thinking, well versed in discourse, and care deeply about Jewish life are suddenly nervous when it comes to God. Whether it’s because they are unlearned or unbelieving, “God-talk” is hard and it’s uncomfortable.
Deeper still, is that the idea of God is earth shattering. Into our scientific and political systems comes this thing from “out there” that refuses to allow us to sink into the morass of immorality. S I have written from the Jewish perspective justice is more than a human virtue, or a way to secure our freedom, it is holy and infinite, forever disrupting our sense of quietude and requiring our every capacity to pursue it. God holds infinite expectations with limitless accommodation. If I were to write a job description for God somewhere near the top would be to “shake away the complacency of the heart.”
God makes us uncomfortable. That’s a good thing.
On the other hand, belief itself comes with its own quiescent dullness. Believers are easily lulled into a pattern of behavior of “just doing” something. Righteousness becomes self-righteousness, and spiritual discipline becomes empty behaviorism. The complicity with the command can easily slip into the provincial.
Which is why God needs atheists.
Atheists hold the mirror up to the pettiness of religion and the narrowness of thinking when you find yourself “just doing” or “just believing” in something. Atheists challenge all belief, most importantly, those beliefs that might need to be shed. They make the faithful justify their faith, and look inwards to make sure that what they believe in is indeed true.
Atheists make God uncomfortable. That’s a good thing too.
There is no one that embodies the shaken-up feeling more among Judaism’s founders than Jacob. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, Jacob is on the run. He just lied to his father and tricked his brother out of the covenantal birthright. He is certainly not in the God-centered frame of mind. He arrived to what the Torah said was a “certain place” (more on that later), and using a rock for a pillow laid down in the dark dreamt the famous dream of a ladder climbing from earth to heaven. (Gen.28:10) Upon the ladder were angels that were “ascending and descending” upon it.
The rabbis ask, why were angels going up? It seems obvious that angels would descend from heaven, but what were the angels that descended from earth? The commentator Haamek Dvar says that these angles are a symbolic reminder of the partnership between heaven and earth. (H.D. ad locum) God’s righteousness upsets the systems that tend to dispossess and oppress. God shakes the foundations of our complacency for the sake of justice. Yet goodness also arises from the messiness of the world, and while this might make God feel uncomfortable, that discomfort is a good thing. God needs our disquiet. The ladder is more than a passage from heaven to earth, it is a yoke binding us all together.
We need each other — believers and non-believers— to shake ourselves up. A hundred years of modern thinking has taught us that the myth of our own self-sufficiency leaves us without a partner and without a direction to make meaning of our lives. So too our own religious behavioralism leaves us judgmental of those who do not believe. It is time to dream again. Let’s all get a little uncomfortable and go up or down the ladder.
Which brings us back to that “certain place” where Jacob spends the night. The Hebrew for this place is makom, understood as a euphemism for God. The rabbis add, that for this place, this strange and indeed uncertain place to be invoked as a name of God, there must be righteous people who are found there already (Pierke D’Rebbe Eliezer 35) That is, a place that has righteous people, even non-believers, can be called by a Divine Name.
That’s because God needs atheists.