Kol Nidre 5777: “The God Participle”

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

Since this is the evening of confession. I am going to confess something tonight. It’s a theological confession.

While I am rooted in one particular religious tradition, and I am open to interfaith engagement and spiritual exploration, there is one place where I get stuck. And that is, I don’t like the term atheist. So long as I have been engaged spiritually, since I was young through my studies and now into my rabbinate, I have always had a problem with the term atheist.

I don’t like the term atheist because it begins with a negative. A-thiest, non theist, and it seems odd to begin one’s belief system from a negative. Why define your set of beliefs from a place of the negative. My wife Yohanna doesn’t like the candy non-pariels, the chocolate drops with the candy sprinkles on top because as she says, why would you want to eat a candy that has a negative name? It is hard to argue with that. A belief system based on what you don’t believe does not seem like a compelling place to start.

But the other reason is that the term atheist, which is there to define an opposition to God, is there to describe a particular type of God. A God we have a common notion of, but a God that may not hold us to our reality, a narrow conception of what God is. A fundamentalist view of God as portrayed in sacred text, or a vision of God we are given as a child, an immature incomplete vision, that then defines or not define our adult spirituality.

So tonight I wanted to talk a bit about God. And I want to talk about God because I really want to talk about religion and I want to talk about spirituality. Because it seems to me that for all the power we ascribe to God traditionally, ironically God remains one of the biggest barriers we have to living a spiritual life.

Earlier this year, I was invited to Nova School—the local private middle school– to talk about Judaism. I spent the morning sharing a presentation on Judaism with four different classes of middle school students, and then answering a lot of questions. The students had prepared question in advance, so I came prepared to answer a variety of things. The questions were thoughtful and interesting. One question was, “what is the meaning of YHVH?” What does that signify?

It was an interesting question, because I hadn’t really been asked that before. The term YHVH is a reference to God, and a specific one at that. YHVH is a transliteration of sorts—when we render Hebrew into English characters—of yod, hay, vav, hay. The four Hebrew letters that make up the traditional name of God. We call this name the tetragrammaton, from the Greek for “four letters.”

Generally you see this term in academic papers and books, in Judaic or biblical studies. Sometimes in these contexts they use the pronunciation Yahweh, which is just applying vocalization to the four letters, and it is not a term we use in Jewish ritual practice. In fact, as I explained to the students, we don’t use that pronunciation in worship, or services, or ritual. Rather we use the term Adonai—literally meaning “My Lord”–in its place when we are reciting a berachah. So Adonai is the term we use, taking on the role as a direct reference to God, so much so that in traditional practice one does not even say the term Adonai when referring to God, one would say Hashem—literally “the name”–so when saying a blessing not at an appropriate time, for the sake of education or demonstration, or referring to God in another context, traditional Jews would say “Hashem” as in Baruch Atah Hashem…

I explained this all to the kids. Later on reflecting on this, it got me thinking, that these substitutes come to show that essentially, we can not say God’s name. The name is unpronounceable.

And this is a deeply rooted tradition. In ancient times, when the community gathered for Yom Kippur, it was an intense day of ritual, sacrifice and atonement. Tomorrow we will read in the Torah about the Azazel ritual, when two goats are brought forth before the priest, one as an offering to God, and the other the goat upon which the sins of the community would be placed, and then sent out into the wilderness.

The rabbis in the Talmud elaborate on this ritual as well with more detailed explanation of all of the steps. One thing that would happen on Yom Kippur in ancient times according to the rabbis is that the High Priest would pronounce the name of God the way it was meant to be pronounced. This was the only time in the year when it was done. And when he did the people would recite, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,” baruch shem kavod malchuto le’olam va’ed, which we retain now in our liturgy in the Shema. It is the response after the Shema, usually recited in silence, but recited aloud on Yom Kippur as an echo of this ancient ritual when the people would recite this aloud.

Now, if the rabbis say that the name was pronounced by the High Priest in the Temple only this one time the whole year, they also say that after the destruction of the Temple  in 70 CE by the Romans, the act that led to the shift from biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism, from Bible to Talmud, from priests to rabbis, the end of the sacrificial system and an ushering in of a new form of Jewish practice, after this destruction it was forbidden to pronounce the name of God. And with this prohibition, over time, the knowledge of how to pronounce the name was lost.

So for us, as we approach this practice, it is not so much that we don’t pronounce the name of God, but we can’t pronounce the name of God. We can not name God.

Which is a powerful statement, that we can not name God. And, I would suggest, a crux of our theology as Jews. For naming is defining, and to say that we can not name God then we can not define God. A name is a noun. And here is our main problem, our issue with God, perhaps. That we tend to approach God as a noun. As a thing. As an object.

This is something that even informs our popular imagination or ideas. Perhaps you have heard about the God Particle. The God Particle, a term that scientists actually don’t like, is a popular term for the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that scientists are looking for and have potentially found. Posited by physicist Peter Higgs over 40 years ago, it is a particle that it is theorized existed not only at the subatomic level but at the beginning of the universe. I won’t go into details because it would be too far afield and frankly I don’t understand it, but that is what these giant colliders that scientists have built are looking for. By smashing beams of particles together, scientists study matter on a level previously unknown. All that to say, outside of the specifics, is that the reason the nickname was proposed, and why it stuck in the popular imagination, is because we tend to think of God as a thing, as a constant.

But I don’t think this is accurate, or helpful.

It is not the God Particle we need to think about, but the God Participle.

In our “Advancing in Hebrew” class here at TBH we are diving into Hebrew grammar. And so bear with me through a short grammar lesson. Hebrew is built around a three letter root system in which a group of three letters will have a particular meaning. For example kof-dalet-shin has the meaning of holiness, and why the words for Kiddush over the wine, or the Mourner’s kaddish and kiddushin (marriage) are all related, variations on the theme of holiness.

These roots can be formed into nouns or verbs, generally by fitting them into a structure or conjugation that follows a particular pattern that can then be modified based on these patterns and use of suffixes and prefixes to reflect number, gender or person. And one such structure, one such form, that lies at the heart of all of this is the participle.

What is a participle? Allow me to quote from Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, a standard text of biblical Hebrew grammar:

Like the two infinitives, the participles also occupy a middle place between the noun and the verb. In form they are simple nouns, and most nearly related to the adjective; consequently they cannot in themselves be employed to represent definite relations of tense or mood. On the other hand, their verbal character is shown by their not representing, like the adjectives, a fixed and permanent quality (or state), but one which is in some way connected with an action or activity. The participle active indicates a person or thing conceived as being in the continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity.

Got that? In simpler terms, as our Hebrew textbook that we use in class says, a participle is a form of that can act like a noun or a verb, and whose translation can therefore be varied. By way of example, our textbook points out hu shomer can mean “he is a guard,” “he is one who guards,” “he is guarding,” “he guards,” “he does guard.”

So what does this have to do with God? This is in fact the way we encounter God most frequently in our ritual practice and in our liturgy. As a participle.

And these might be familiar to you. When we bless bread we say hamotzi lechem min haarez, who brings forth bread from the earth. The word motzi is a participle: “the one who brings forth” “the bringer-forther” or “bringing forth.” Same is true for our blessing over wine or grape juice: borei peri hagafen, who creates the fruit of the vine, God is described as the one who creates, creating. Before the Aliyah to the Torah, we say, notein hatorah, the giver of Torah, the one who gives Torah.

In the Amidah, the silent prayer we just read God is somech noflim, the one who upholds those who have fallen, or upholding those who fall. And rofe cholim, the one who heals the sick, or healing the sick, and matir asurim, the one who frees the captive, or freeing the captive. And there are many other examples.

God then is not a thing, God is a state of being. God is not an actor, God is an action. God is not a particle, but a participle.

This is why we get so hung up. This is why ironically God gets in the way of our spiritual lives. Because we tend to think of God as a thing, out there, when we need to think of God as a participle, in here. The question of spirituality is not do you believe in God. The question of spirituality is do you live in a Godly way? The question is not do you look upon God above, but rather are you able to elevate your life to heights above the mundane, above the day-to-day, above the individual self.

And because of this, this idea, this God Participle, I ironically have a new appreciation for the God of the Bible, of the Torah, the God conception we perhaps have the most trouble with. The basis, perhaps, for much rejection of Judaism and religion in general. The source for the theism in atheism. A question I am often asked is how can you believe in a God who… and quotes some difficult passage from the Torah. And for some it is a legitimate question of inquiry. And for some it is a challenge. A seeking of permission to reject, to reject the God of the Torah and therefore religion as a whole.

And at the same time, it is the text in which we most often encounter God. And my appreciation for the text, for the Torah, comes because it is in this text, our most sacred text, that God is continually in the act of doing.

What does God do in the Torah?

The God of the Torah gets pissed off, changes God’s mind, forgives, wants revenge, shows compassion, lashes out, plays favorites.

The God of the Torah learns from mistakes, gives comfort to the ailing, teaches, is able to be reasoned with, creates.

The God of the Torah frees from oppression, feeds the hungry, offers encouragement, cares for animals, argues and compromises.

The God of the Torah wages war, forges peace, pushes away, draws close, remains loyal, shares secrets, values trust.

Sound familiar? It sounds kind of like us. The God of the Hebrew Bible, of the Torah, is the most human of all the conception of God in our theological tradition. That’s what we say, that humans are created in the divine image, from the story of Creation in Genesis, that we are betzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Which we can understand as a two-way relationship. We humans may carry within us a spark of the divine, meaning that each individual human being is worthy of respect and compassion. And God reflects humanity, with all of it ups and downs, promises and challenges.

Which for me makes this God—the God of the Torah—the most powerful God. The most human God is the most powerful God because it is a God that allows us to embrace the totality of life. That’s the God I want to worship. That’s the God I’m interested in. That’s the God I want to wrestle with. Because we need to embrace the totality of what God represents in order to reflect it in our lives.

Over and over in the Torah we are told that the number one sin is idolatry. Idolatry is nothing more than the reduction of God to a part of the whole. To substitute the representation for the real thing.

But we need the wholeness. That’s why idolatry is a problem. We need the totality, we need the all-of-it, all of God’s actions. I know, there are other religious thinkers who are challenged by the Bible, by the Torah, and the negativity contained, who posit it is not a true representation of the divine, that God is love. God is love. And I like this, I’ll concede this. But it is not sufficient. It is only the part of a whole represented in all the actions we see God performing in the Torah. If we read the whole scope of Torah, in the text, we see all of it. We see it in God, and we need to see it reflected in ourselves.

Yes, God is love. And we need love in order to deepen relationships, forge bonds, build families, communities.

And God is compassion. And we need compassion because we are not going to love everyone or everything, but we need to bestow upon everyone and everything the dignity and respect that we wish to receive and to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met and rights respected.

And God as we know from the Torah, God is also anger. And we need that anger, we need to be angry in the face of injustice and be motivated to go out and do something about it. We need to angry to call out sexism, and xenophobia, and Islamophobia, and racism, and anti-Semitism, and homophobia when we are seeing it, and we are seeing it these days. We need to be angry to be able to call out those who would seek to overturn us and our society.

And God of the Torah is insecurity. And we need insecurity, so that we can strive to grow, and learn, and not be content with how things are at any one moment, knowing that we have the potential to change, and become better people.

God embodies all of these things. We need to embody all of these things.

The God of the Torah is first and foremost a vulnerable God. A God who creates humans because God needs help to maintain what was created. A God who enters into covenant, a relationship with a people out of need for a partner and doesn’t want to and can’t be alone. A God who, over the course of the entire text, is trying to figure things out, and is influenced by humans just as much as humans are influenced by God.

The God of the Torah is a God who allows us to accept our vulnerabilities, our limitations, and know that it is ok. God is a model for personal growth, for teshuvah, for change. Our spiritual roadblock comes from when we imagine God to be perfect, to be whole, to be omnipotent. Because we know that does not play out in reality. Things happen beyond our control.

So Rather than think of God as the answer. Think of God as the question, as the model for what is possible, for what can be.

God is a participle. A participle is not a completed action. It is, as the grammar book says, a person or thing conceived as being in the continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity. Continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity.

This is the essence of the spiritual life. This is why I don’t believe in atheism. Because, I would posit, we all do have a sense of this larger calling, need for movement, desire to make meaning and transcend ourselves. We have the desire to change. That’s why we are here. And change on all levels. At the personal level, the communal level and even at the divine level, change is possible. If anything, change is the one constant.

We inhabit the spiritual through the actions we take: cultivating a sense of gratitude, being mindful of where you are and what you are doing, showing compassion to those in need, extending kindness to fellow humans and creatures, caring for the earth, standing up for injustice, deepening relationships, working on ourselves. Spiritual living is not about a divine being, it’s about being divine.

This is what lies at the heart of the universe. Not some particle that will tie it all together, with a neat and tidy name, but the participle that allows for movement, for new ways of being. We need the spiritual life. I know that is why you are here. But I know also that some people know that as well, but aren’t here, for reasons that we ultimately need to leave behind.

So use the term God, or don’t. But don’t use the term atheist. Because you are not. Affirm your religiosity. Live your spirituality. Reach beyond yourself.

Imagine yourself in the divine image, and therefore, just be a participle.

Thanks for continuing the conversation!

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