My Yom Kippur Speech

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.

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32 Responses to My Yom Kippur Speech

  1. Jacob Stein says:

    Please forgive me for being so rude, however this must be one of the most ridiculous pieces of nonsense I have ever read.

    You are attempting, very eloquently, to weave an absurd fraud.

    You would truly have me believe that the worthless alcoholic, drug addicted, whoremonger and atheist who helps no one and is a parasite on his friends, family and society is truly a man of great virtue, with a moral compass based on something tangible. On the other hand, the orthodox Jew who toils soberly to support his family, who helps orphans and widows, who is careful not to harm anyone, he is inferior because he does not fully understand the nature of the God he fears.

    Your considerable talents could much be used selling some worthless quack remedies or perhaps used cars.

  2. Yecheskel says:

    Jacob, you are committing a fraud. The rabbi never said if one is an atheist then no matter what, be a drug addict etc etc, he is good, and vice versa, an Orthodox Jew, even if very moral and ethical, is not good. For the life of me I don’t know why you are doing it. You write also in other blogs. You seem to be someone who has too much time on his hands.

    • David says:

      Actually, Jake does have a lot of time on his hands. He launched a personal harassment campaign against a skeptic blogger, and was fired as a result. The amusing part is that Jake figured that it was a message from Hashem telling him to keep doing what he was doing, only a great deal more of it.

  3. Jacob Stein says:

    Yecheskel my friend, being a defender of the faith can be time consuming, however I have no doubt that the rewards will be immense and eternal.

    Let’s simply compare for a moment the Jew and the atheist.

    The Jew believes that he must live a life of kindness, honesty and sobriety, that he must respect his wife and love his children because if he does not do so he will go to hell.

    The atheist, on the contrary, believes that man is merely a worthless, soulless bag of chemicals. A 100 kilo pile of meaningless molecules which will disintegrate in a few decades surely has no importance in the midst of an observable universe containing about 10^24 stars and created about 15 billion years ago. The wisest course for him to follow is unbridled hedonism, curbed only by fear of the police (who can usually be avoided or out smarted) or by some residual feelings of morality inherited from a God fearing grandparent.

    People are not instinctively good. See this book for example.

    Education hasn’t helped. Half of the organizers of the holocaust held a doctorate.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wannsee_Conference#List_of_attendee

    The proof of the moral bankruptcy of atheism is that no primarily atheistic society has ever had a low level of violence and reproduced at a replacement level. 

    • David says:

      Jake–
      Come back when you find out that half the people with doctorates organized the Wansee Conference. Otherwise, your statistic is no more meaningful than my factoid about Lazar Kaganovich, who was raised frum, went to a yeshiva, and went on to preside over the starvation death of a few million people (or my factoids about the various frummies who have gone to prison for child abuse and various financial shenanigans).

  4. There are good and bad atheists, agnostics and people of every religious cloth.

    Judaism (and its daughter religions) protested against pagan behaviour (inter alia). It was an improvement on what came before it. But there will be no future revelations to update Torah 1.0 – it will forever be stamped with the evil institution of slavery and revolting Cannanite genocide (yes I know the Rambam and R’ J. Sacks and their responses to this statement).

    What I believe the good Rabbi is saying – is “let’s move forward” and progress beyond the Torah. What a good idea!

  5. Abe says:

    “Education hasn’t helped. Half of the organizers of the holocaust held a doctorate.”

    Yeah, and prisoners are moral enough to find child molesters repugnant but “gedolim” try to protect them.

    P.S. Stop trying to “protect” the faith. Dawkins is about the only person around who would approve of your drivel, and then only as a foil.

  6. Chay Nobody says:

    “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.”

    I personally am totally non-plussed as to who the “we” you are refering to are. Is it the great moral leaders of the democratic nations who show us such wonderful examples of human perfection? Is it the despots of tyrant nations who have no care greater than buying the latest model Mercedes?
    While you seem to be refering to “the general human race on earth” – this “group” is most definately non-monolithic about any idea, and I dont see how you can decide who makes the moral rules for this “group”, or even if there are any.

  7. The Hedyot says:

    > …and no longer sanction the wonton killing of innocents.

    Indeed, we can hold our heads high that in our era innocent people are no longer executed by means of a deadly wonton.

  8. David says:

    I’m a bit of an agnostic myself, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that people don’t agree on anything about God. Most Jews believe that God has certain positive attributes, including goodness, justice and mercy. Generally speaking, we can agree that it’s right to emulate those attributes (granted, we may split hairs over details, but most folks would probably agree on most big issues). As to the idea that society can dictate morals, it’s interesting, but I wouldn’t call it a “fixed moral compass.” In fact, it’s a pretty unfixed compass, as it swings with whatever happens to be fashionable in society.

    Finally, would “the wonton killing of innocents” be some kind of reference to traditional Jewish fondness for Chinese food? I had never heard of anyone using those little dumplings for such a nefarious purpose.

  9. Shmendrik says:

    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. ”

    Those are some odd examples to choose. Pretty much of all of that progress was made or initiated by religious people, acting in the name of God and religion.

  10. Daniel Schwartz says:

    I don’t see why this sermon couldn’t be given in an Orthodox schul. Arguably it’s a call to make G-d relevant to our lives and not a mere abstraction (i.e. ours is not a G-d of Nothing. We have to strive and labor to render Him a G-d of Something. . .) What’s offensive about that from the Orthodox POV? Granted, the text could use some tweaking to make the point clearer, but I’d be thrilled to hear such a speech.

  11. Jacob Stein says:

    First of all, I would like to mention that the orthodox Jewish community is perhaps the most peaceful, sober and chaste community on earth, as I explain in detail here:

    http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/09/orthodox-jewish-crime.html

    Secondly, I would like to mention that slavery is not necessarily so bad as I explain in detail here:

    http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/04/slavery-is-it-evil.html

    Thirdly, I think it may be a little premature for atheists to congratulate themselves for abolishing slavery, because actually slavery is now more popular than ever, as explained in more detail here:

    http://www.iabolish.org/slavery_today/in_depth/global-slavery.html

  12. S. Benson says:

    Rabbi:
    I must say this is one of your weaker posts. I would have hoped you would be able to approach the question of God from a higher intellectual plane.
    “We all recognize that God is a non-corporal, and therefore an other worldly being(?) or thing” yet Judaism has dealt with the issue of transcendence and the issue of corporeality. The fact that knowledge of God is hard to attain doesn’t, in Judaism, mean that it doesn’t exist or that it is open for interpretation. It also doesn’t mean that since it is hard to define, we open the doors to the interpretation by anyone: positing that different religions don’t agree on a definition of God doesn’t argue against the existence of God, only that different religions don’t agree on some things (!). Furthermore, Judaism has never maintained that belief in God is democratic process. We know that we are a small minority. I’m not changing my beliefs because, in a vote, there are 900 million Hindus vs 14 million Jews (not that 14 million Jews would agree on anything but that is a different issue).
    The Torah doesn’t start with “Nothing” rather it starts with God creating the heavens and the earth. It doesn’t even state that the heavens and earth were created from nothing, simply that they were created. Your riff on “nothing” and “something tangible” is, frankly, sophomoric.
    If you wish to turn God into “something,” you should start at home. If the fact that Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Muslims, have battled each other for centuries is of little consequence to Jewish faith. That there are 2 billion Christians doesn’t mean that they are right, only that 2 billion people are following a system founded by one man after a vision on the road to Damascus.

  13. Puzzled says:

    I enjoy the speech. As many have pointed out before, the space filled in a sentence by God could be filled by anything without much changing the meaning. To say “God made the Earth” or “God requires that you do this” isn’t really a very clear statement. What is this God all about?

  14. Anonymous says:

    I find it ironic that in your list of progresses done absent God, almost all of them were initiated and led by people of deep faith. They were mostly not Jewish but men and women of deep conviction – many of them Quaker. It seems to me that it is a common and popular device to employ a revisionist view of historical development and ignore the religious backgrounds and motivations of many of history’s great progressives.

  15. Anonymous says:

    An excellent survey of the role of religion in the formation of our enlightened democratic world would be “The Hebrew Republic” by Professor Eric Nelson at Harvard.

  16. food for thought. very well written and presented!

  17. NFQ says:

    I hope you’ll be back to post more soon. I’m totally fascinated by your blog, and looking forward to hearing more.

  18. tayqoo says:

    i’m not sure whether this blog is dead or dormant. in any case i’d like to communicate with you. if you are interested please email me.

  19. toemoe8 says:

    Where did you go rabbi?

  20. Mahla says:

    It seems the Rabbi has gone to ground.

    I’m going to go see John Shelby Spong speak soon. Spong is a Christian, although most Christians would consider him a heretic (at best). Often, what the author of this blog has written in has made me think of Spong, even though the author’s a Jewish Atheist and Spong’s a believing Christian.

  21. kreindy says:

    When the comment portion of the blog stops being serviced by the blogmaster, and is back up, check out the scandalous comments against Yiddishkeit being made by a kofer on http://seforim.blogspot.com/2010/10/marc-b-shapiro-new-writings-from-r-kook.html

  22. Bill says:

    Ithink its time for a chanuka speech

  23. When Israel submits to their Goddess (Hagia Sophia) Wisdom of Proverbs 8 from Solomon, they will finally have their victory against the servants of Muhammad and His Qur’an. The Qu’ran is blaspheme, because Muhammad says in The Cattle 6:101 (Page 87)and I quote, “Wonderful Originator of the heavens and the earth! How could He have a son when He has no consort, and He (Himself) created everything, and He is the Knower of all things.”
    Proverbs 8 Hagia Sophia Wisdom says, “He possessed me before the foundation of the Earth, and brought me up at his side as a master craftsman.” Also, “I was daily His delight.” She continued explaining that those who love Her find favor in Allah’s eyes.
    Genesis Allah said to Adam, “Eve is your wife…. you are ONE with her.”
    Father Allah-Jehovah is ONE with Mother Hagia Sophia Wisdom.
    John 17:24 Christ said, “24 Father, I desire that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me “before the foundation of the world.” Christ is claiming to be Sophia.
    Find out how Christ is the Goddess Wisdom in the flesh of a man at WiccanPope.com

  24. Gregory Magarshak says:

    If you are an atheist, how can you be a rabbi? Are you preaching the value of some kind of orthopraxy? It all seems a pretty wrong to me.

  25. Only a Jew says:

    “So we reach the end of Yom Kippur, our holiest days. On this day, the day for which supersedes the Shabbos ”

    Haven’t been here for awhile and evidently neither has the poser rabbi. Anyone who makes this statement has no clue about not only Shabbos but Yom Kippur as well. I think the jury has come in and the fraud that is the author of this blog has been exposed as either a rabbi who knows nothing about basic judaism therefore disqualifying him from commenting on it with any credibility, or he is not close to a rabbi which makes him a liar and a know nothing with more time on his hands then he knows what to do with.

    How sad.

  26. Rabban Gamliel says:

    He certainly could not be the type of rabbi he was claiming to be, certainly not with the congregation or credentials he was claiming to have. He was indeed a fraud and he had willing dupes who considered it a bad question to ask if he was for real because they wanted him to be real or more specifically his charges. He was in over his head.

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