Below is the speech I would like to give this Yom Kippur, but cannot, at least to my congregation.
We end Yom Kippur and for many a highlight of the day, by proclaiming “Ado-nai Who haElo-him”. Many question how can those of us who don’t believe in God, either rejecting the notion of God in its entirety or those who merely don’t see a reason to accept God, can lead moral and ethical lives. In reality, I think that same question needs to be reversed and asked of those who do believe in God.
God – what is it? We all recognize that God is a non-corporal, and therefore an other worldly being(?) or thing. Rambam concedes that we will never be able to grasp what God is. From our perspective, God is nothing and everything. We live in a physical world with its natural constraints, with the ability to see or at least understand physical – worldly – things. God is none of these. God tells Moses he can never been seen, never fully understood, never knowable.
This view is borne out by those who profess belief in God. There is no single item regarding God that any of the various religions can agree upon (other than we can’t know God). As Jews we have witnessed those who kill us in the name of God. We, in turn, have also waged war (in some instances defensive) on behalf of our belief that God gave us – us and only us- the promised land. On the other hand, other religions, Christianity and Islam (and earlier religions), have done the same on behalf of their view of God. In other words, God is whatever we want God to be. So God is everything. That is, God can be and has been understood in mutually conflicting ways. If God is everything he is then Nothing.
How can we ask atheists or agnostics, “if you don’t have God where is your moral compass?” Where is the believer’s moral compass? God? If God’s word is fully subjective where is God? What is a God that means Nothing?
The Torah begins that our world was Nothing. A very apt beginning.
Those who don’t place their belief in God, have instead fixed moral and ethical compasses, whether it be the view that society can dictate these ideals or other views of morality, these are subject to not the review of Nothing but something verifiable. Something tangible, the opposite of Nothing.
In removing our moral and ethical beliefs from Nothing, we, as people have progressed. We have abolished slavery, placed women and minorities on equal footing with the majority, and no longer sanction the wonton killing of innocents. We have learned that genocide, even when demanded by God, is wrong. We have even established rules governing conflict and the laws of war. While one can and should note the deficiencies in our progress, this forces us to continue our path of improving ourselves. These improvements come not from Nothing but from something, our ever evolving notions of right and wrong, of justice, of ensuring that good is being done. This process is determined not by appealing to God but instead of continuing to work towards a common goal of improvement. Of course, continuous improvement, never being satisfied with where one is, is reflected in Yom Kippur, a yearly holiday which forces us to come to grips with our own shortcomings and attempt to improve upon them.
So we reach the end of Yom Kippur, our holiest days. On this day, the day for which supersedes the Shabbos – the day which reminds of creation, of Nothingness – let us loudly proclaim that God he is King but let us move beyond the God of Nothing and instead turn God into Something. We needn’t rely upon our primitive notions of God and that of religion to improve ourselves so that we can lead moral and ethical lives. We need Something. Ado-nai Who haElo-him.