You Don't Believe in God, Do You?

Kol Nidre 5778

Harvey in Houston.  Irma on the East Coast.  Maria tearing through Puerto Rico. Flood waters rise unfathomably high, stand a biblical 40 days and 40 nights.  Waters cover the face of the earth.  Earthquakes in Mexico City topple mansions and mountains alike.  An “Act of God”" might be how insurance adjustors describe the devastating natural disasters we have witnessed.  But, as we gather in our sanctuary on Kol Nidre night, we can be neither so disingenuous nor dismissive.  Is the God before whom we recount and repent our sins responsible for the horror we have seen in September?  One professional pundit pointed out that Houston has a homosexual Mayor, and claimed divine retribution is a more likely explanation for Hurricane Harvey then the science describing climate change.[1]  A decade ago, a televangelist claimed God sent Katrina because of New Orleans’ lax laws on abortion.[2]  These assertions seem ridiculous. But, as religious people gathered for this most sacred spiritual event, we nonetheless need to know how to respond.  Too many terrible things in our world are blamed on God; for some of us, too many terrible things happen in this world to believe in a God. 

This summer’s storms brought me back to winter in New York, the first night of Hanukkah 1998.  I was at a dive bar for a first date I deemed so unpromising I scheduled it for a Monday night at five.  In retrospect, I wonder how promising the prospect was for my date, who, after all, was going to meet a rabbinical student.  As I brought the first round of drinks, the beautiful woman[3] across from me asked only one question: “You don’t believe in God, do you?”  No dilly-dallying, no delay in getting to the heart of the issue.  If the night was to have meaning, difficult questions were to be confronted.  What is true for a first date must, all the more so, be true for as significant an event as Kol Nidre.  Whether you are atheist, agnostic or believer, it is time for us to talk about God.

We need to talk about God, because—during my years here at Sinai—so many of you have asked me about God.[4]  Adults have asked some serious questions about God’s existence; more than a few b’nei mitzvah students have confided in me that they don’t believe in God.  So, let us start with where we are: let us begin by discussing disbelief. I have no problem when people do not believe in God; I do take issue with a fast rejection of a facile conception of what God might be.  When people tell me they don’t believe in God, I like to ask them, “Which God don’t you believe in?”   Is the God you don’t believe in the God of the Bible, the God who chooses one people over all others, the God who avenges Pharaoh by killing every first-born in Egypt?  Do you not believe in the God who metes out reward and punishment, a Zeus-like character who gives this one suffering and that one the lotto jackpot?  Do you not believe in the fundamentalist’s God: the Lord of unbearable self-righteousness, the Sovereign of unbelievable self-certitude, the Deity declaiming this world is just a stepping stone en route to a better world to come? Perhaps you don’t believe in the image of a bearded being atop a cloud, the God we see caricatured on TV, even the character of God we sometimes encounter in this sanctuary.  These need not be the God-concepts to which we limit our imagination.  Over the three millennia Jews have thought about God, we have invented innumerable theologies: the Bible’s King of Kings, the Rabbis’ Heavenly Parent, Philo’s Perfected Ideal, Maimonides’ Source of Reason, the Kabbalists’ Divine Spark.  When a Jew says, “I don’t believe in God,” he needs to be pretty specific. 

Deeper than the question of belief is one more fundamental: why do we Jews have so many differing definitions of God?  To answer that question, let’s compare ourselves to Christianity: travel with me back to the year 325, where in the town of Nicaea, the Church held its earliest ecumenical council.  As Christianity became an imperial religion, the need arose for conformity of practice; in that tiny Turkish town, 1,800 Bishops were gathered by Emperor Constantine  to define Christian belief.  The lasting output of that council is the Nicene Creed, the official statement of Christian belief.  The Creed, which defines the very nature of the Christian God, serves a perfect purpose: if you believe it, you are a Christian; if you do not believe, you can’t be Christian.  Since Nicaea, faith is the litmus test of Christian belonging; any and all who protest the creed remain outside the church.[5]

In that same year 325, one thousand miles southwest of Nicaea, rabbinic academies thrived in Babylonia on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  These learning communities formed Judaism as we know it: our Rabbis created the practices that continue to define Judaism, and wrote many of the Hebrew prayers we prayed tonight.  While these early Rabbis settled many points of Jewish law, they did not set any specific guidelines for Jewish belief.  Nowhere in any Talmud—or in any other major Jewish work—do we discover a Jewish Creed.[6]  There exists no central statement of Jewish belief defining who is inside the synagogue, who is outside, a heretic.[7]  Our lack of a creed doesn’t stem from a shortage of creativity: our Rabbis intentionally decided that all Jews adopting the same idea of God was not our ideal.[8]  They understood each individual’s understanding of Divinity was necessarily subjective, and considered that subjectivity regarding God as religiously productive. 

Our Sages imagine subjectivity began at the very moment God met the Jewish people atop Mount Sinai, when God said, “I am יהוה your God.[9]  Describing that scene, R. Yohanon said: [Imagine] a statue—a thousand people look at it. Yet each and every one of them says, “It is looking at me.”  Even so the Holy One of Israel made each and every person in Israel feel as if they were looking at God when God said: I am יהוה Your God.  [On a similar line of thought,] Resh Lakish [likened everyone’s varied views of God to looking at] a beautiful polished gem, which shows a different facet based upon your particular point of view.[10] 

This image of God as a piece of art, subjectively appreciated by its beholders—each owning their own interpretation and everyone finding their own meaning—has been instructive for Jews through the ages.  Every person ponders God; we all see something different.  While other religions created certitude through Creeds, Judaism opened the doors of Divinity and allowed all individuals the freedom to connect in their own way.  Jews have never claimed that there is but one definition of the Divine we must all accept; for three thousand years we Jews have been agreeing to disagree about the Divine.

Since we each have our own understanding, since none can impose her beliefs on the other, since each is entitled to his own disbelief or faith, I maintain that Judaism is an agnostic tradition.  Agnostic here is a technical term: to be agnostic means not to commit to one definition of anything; in theology, to be agnostic indicates that one does not believe it is possible to know if God exists.  Agnostics are in the center of the spectrum between believers and atheists.  Atheists attest they know that there is no God; believers have full faith in God.  Believers and atheists share certainty.  Agnostics?  They’re not so sure.  A Judaism that refuses to commit to a solitary, unifying definition of God certainly seems to makes its home in the agnostic center of the spectrum of belief.

Perhaps you are thinking:

Rabbi, Really?!?  How can Judaism be agnostic if you already told us Torah depicts the Divine as asserting: I am יהוה your God!  Furthermore, Rabbi, you failed to mention that God’s saying, “I am יהוה your God”, is not just in our Bible, and is not only one of our Ten Commandments, but is in fact the very first of the Ten! What could be less agnostic than our very first commandment asserting the existence of the very God you say Judaism won’t speak about with certainty?

 

If these thoughts cross your mind, you have the medieval mystic Moses Nachmanides in your corner.  He understands this verse as a clear command: “This is a positive commandment, both teaching and commanding [Israel] that they must know and believe that יהוה exists and that יהוה is their God.”  Are we to understand, then, that belief in God a Jewish obligation?  Perhaps so to Nachmanides, but not so for Italian commentator Isaac Abarbanel, who writes, “I, for one, am not too shy to say this is not a commandment.”  What does it signify that this first “commandment” might not even carry the strength of a command?  To me, the fact that there is even debate on this issue means we’ve found another place where Jewish thinking refuses to admit certainty.  Perhaps that is why Hezekiah ben Manoah explains that the word “your” from, I am יהוה your God, is in the singular: Just as an image can be made so that all think the eyes are looking directly at them, so too when God spoke, everyone thought God was talking directly to them.[11]  Sound familiar? Like the facets of a gem or the stares of a statue?  Like another fantastic work of art, the Mona Lisa, and her eyes that find you?[12]  Where some see a command determining belief, others see subjectivity.  If we cannot assert for certain whether the first commandment is even a commandment, what can we claim to know about God? 

Judaism is an agnostic religion: every individual apprehends God—doubts God, even denies God—each in our own way.  To be agnostic is to assert that no one can truly know the exclusive truth about God; how better to be agnostic than to allow every person the ability to imagine Divinity for themselves, to be committed never to settle the debate about which the solitary definition of God?  Judaism’s refusal to commit to a creed, however, does not mean that ours is an atheist, godless religion.  To be agnostic is to know we cannot know.  Let’s consider the fundamental expression of Jewish belief, the words from Deuteronomy often referred to as “The Watchword of our Faith,” the Shema: “Shema Yisrael, יהוה Eloheinu, יהוה Echad,” which can be translated, “Understand Israel, Adonai, who is our God, Adonai is One.”[13]  Before anyone jumps out of their seat shouting, “See, Rabbi, the Shema says there is a God!,” let’s pay some attention to how we read its words.  Rendering the Shema into English—or, for that matter, pronouncing it in Hebrew—reveals how alien God is to we human beings: our tradition long ago determined it taboo to pronounce God’s true name, יהוה .  In place of expressing God’s true identity we speak the placeholding “Adonai,” Hebrew for “My Lord”.  The very act of saying Shema reminds us much about Divinity remains opaque.  Just as God warns Moses, No mortal can see My Face and live,[14] here even our essential assertion about God distances us from Divinity.  Every time we say the Shema, we are reminded we do not know God’s name.  The watchword of our faith teaches that God is unfathomable.

God is in most ways unfathomable, unimaginable, beyond human comprehension.  This is, in part why the Shema has never served as any “Creed of the Jewish People”.  The actual recitation of the Shema—let alone any inner belief in the Shema!—has never been the litmus test of membership in our minyan.[15]  However, showing up to synagogue to say Shema is what Judaism considers crucial.  In fact, in that same century when Christians communed at Nicaea, the Rabbis created their own way of determining which Jews were on the inside, and who could no longer be counted.  The Rabbis cared not about creed, but all about deed: the only Jew excommunicated was only the one who publicly desecrated Shabbat.[16]  Our Rabbis didn’t care if you believed in the God of our prayers; they cared that you went to synagogue!  Since our Sages, being Jewish has nothing to do with what we believe, and revolves only around how we act in the world.[17]

While the word “God” is as omnipresent in Jewish texts as many imagine God is in the universe, the dominant trope of Jewish living has been the expectations of human beings.  This is perhaps the secret of our Jewish genius: we are clear about the duties expected of us, the obligations that rest on our shoulders.  A paradigmatic example of this genius is Moses Maimonides.  On the one hand, Maimonides wrote fourteen books dictating the details of Jewish deeds; on the other hand, in his philosophical speculations he proposed a “negative theology” and argued it inappropriate to propose anything positive about God.  This man Maimonides, whose philosophy posits all anyone can truly say about God is what God is not,[18] nonetheless could claim with perfect clarity how we must behave in private and public, in business and personal life, with our neighbors and with our conscience.  Teachings of Torah, the outpourings of the Prophets, tractates of Talmud and continuing codicils of law focus on everyday actions and mundane minutiae of daily life.  Our tradition addresses every potential act we undertake at any given moment; Judaism is never agnostic about human behavior.

The deeds we undertake every day are the essence of Jewish life; the thoughts we entertain about any God are secondary to Jewish living.  In Judaism, it is what we do that matters; what we believe does not.  Any language we employ about God only directs us to how we interact with other people; all the terms of our Covenant command us how to behave with our family, friends, and strangers in our midst.[19]   Nowhere is this focus on the domain of human interaction—coupled with a complete dismissal of the Divine—expressed more clearly than in the fundamental rabbinic teaching about Yom Kippur:

For transgressions between a human being and God, Yom Kippur provides atonement.  For transgressions between one human being and another, Yom Kippur does not provide atonement until the transgressor has made right by the other human being to whom he is bound.


In this manner, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah explained the text [Leviticus 16:30]: From all your sins before Adonai you shall be cleansed.  For transgressions between a human being and God, Yom Kippur provides atonement.  For transgressions between one human being and another, Yom Kippur does not provide atonement, until the transgressor has made right by the other human being to whom she is bound.[20] 

From all your sins before Adonai you shall be cleansed, claims Leviticus.  Yom Kippur provides an automatic pass to get right with God, whatever that might mean.[21]  Whatever that might mean, therefore, the purpose of our holiest calendar day is not to meditate on the Divine, but rather to focus on how our behavior has affected, has hurt or impaired, other people.  Despite the appearance of all this praying in God’s presence, the true intent of Yom Kippur—as defined by the very earliest of our Rabbis—is to have us go and get right by the people against whom we have transgressed in this past year.  Yom Kippur is about how human beings can improve their very human interactions.

From the days of our Rabbis on down to our own, Jewish living has been focused on the human dimension.[22]  The tricky nuance of Jewish faith, embedded in our people-focused practice of Yom Kippur, is that all our thinking about Divinity only teaches us how we should interact with very human beings.  Ironically—and almost despite ourselves—we Jews have created a theology, no matter how much about God we know we can never know.  This theology is hardly false or faithless; it is however most strange, indeed unusual: it is borne only of our experience; it excludes speculation.  Our theology is based not on unknowable God, but derives from what we know so well: the human beings who fill our world, who fill our lives.   This theology is the watchword of our faith; we often imagine it instructs us about God, but in fact it directs us to ourselves: Shema Yisrael, יהוה Eloheinu, יהוה Echad, Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.[23]  

Adonai Echad.  We start, literally, at One: we do not know much about our God; we might not know anything at all.  Yet we call our God, our personal, subjective Adon, Adonai, we call that God “One”, because we know that if we are to serve anything in this universe, it must be that which makes us whole, which makes our world whole, of a piece: One.  Adonai Echad: God is One.  We strive to make the world complete, even as we pledge on these High Holy Days to complete ourselves, to bring consistent meaning, integrity to our lives.  We ask our God to have nothing less than the ultimate integrity, the infinite unity for which we strive.  If the Jewish God is anything, Adonai is One.

 Adonai Eloheinu.  My God, my Adon, Adonai, is also our God.  It is not I alone who strives for wholeness in my life; it is not the purpose of our religion or our Days of Awe to perfect only our individuated characters.  I exist—we exist—in community.  There can be no God who only cares about me, who cares for the part and forsakes the whole.  If we are to emulate that God, the One God of all the Earth, then we are pledged not only to ourselves, but to all those around us as well.   We are responsible to more than ourselves and our families; we have obligations to our world and to the people who fill it.  We Jews are a religious community: Adonai,  is my  God, and is our God; we are bound to each other as human beings by the very Divinity we imagine.

Shema Yisra’el.  Hear, O Israel: listen to what we know we hear.  Listen to Israel.  Hearken not to faint whispers in the wind of infinite God; hear, instead, the very voices of humanity that surround us every day.   Shema Yisra’el, Understand how to pay attention to that world, learn to listen to what that world wants of us, hear how we can play our human part in making our world truly One.  Hear, O Israel, the outcry of the oppressed, the plight of the weary.  This is the task of the Jew, the challenge of our theology: we must hearken, pay heed, listen, and act according to what we hear from very real, very human beings.  Shema Yisrael, Hear O Israel, the voices of all humanity.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.   Shema Yisrael: Hear, O community of Israel, listen to the voices, the cries, the celebrations of all humanity.   Adonai Eloheinu: be a sacred community.  Adonai Echad: find your integrity.  Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad: integrity, community, humanity: These are the watchwords of our faith.

“You don’t believe in God, do you?”  All these years later, it doesn’t really matter how I answered the first date who luckily became my wife, or how I answer the question today.  And it doesn’t matter how you answer the question, either.  I know Hurricane Harvey wasn’t sent to punish homosexuals; I know Katrina was more a man-made disaster of neglect than any purported “Act of God”.  And, far more importantly, I know that Judaism doesn’t really care what I believe about a Divine being who may or may not exist and who may or may not have created natural disasters.  I know that Judaism cares deeply that I respond—that we respond—to the victims of Irma, and Harvey, and Maria,  and gun violence in Chicago, and oppression around the world, and so much more.  I know that three thousand years of Jewish thinking has not settled the question of how we might define God.  And I also know that three millennia of Jewish tradition command us to march on, regardless.  To march on, together, repairing this world until it possesses the unity and integrity we might hope for in a God in which we might not even believe.  God we do not know; people we do.  Together is what we know.  Together is what we feel, especially this evening we call Kol Nidre.  Regardless of your belief, doubt, or disbelief in God, all of us are left with each other.  This year, may we make the most with ourselves and with others.  May we integrate our lives, become a meaningful part of our communities, and pay ever closer heed to the humanity in our world.  This is our faith; may it be our will.



[1] Specifically, it was Ann Coulter who tweeted, “I don't believe Hurricane Harvey is God's punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than "climate change.”  James Michael Nichols, “Ann Coulter Says She’d Blame Hurricane on Lesbian Mayor Before Climate Change,” The Huffington Post, August 30, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ann-coulter-hurricane-harvey_us_59a59bc2e4b084581a139315

[2] Pat Robertson made this claim.   Emilie Plesset, “When Donald Trump’s Buddies Blamed Obama and Homosexuals for Hurricanes,” The Daily Beast, August 25, 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/when-donald-trumps-buddies-blamed-obama-and-homosexuals-for-hurricanes

[3] I’m allowed to say this… I married her!

[4] In particular, I want to thank Eric Terman for raising this issue with me over a lovely lunch earlier this year, and Bob Hoyt for sharing a fascinating conversation with me on this subject even as I was interviewing to become Sinai’s rabbi.

[5] I thank my good friend, Rev. Shannon J. Kershner, for her help in clarifying my understanding and representation of Nicaea’s impact on Christian belonging.

[6] We do see many definitions of God, but none articulated and accepted as what every Jew must believe.

[7] Shaye J. D. Cohen defines the distinct behavior of Judaism around issues of belief in “The Significance of Yavneh,” Hebrew Union College Annual, 1984, pp. 41-42:

At no point in antiquity did the rabbis develop heresiology and ecclesiology, creeds and dogmas.  At no point did they expel anyone from the rabbinic order or from rabbinic synagogues because of doctrinal error or because of membership in some heretical group.  Those who held incorrect beliefs were chastised or denied a share in the world to come, not denied a share in the people of Israel in this world.  Those who recited unacceptable liturgical formulas were silenced, not expelled (Mishnah Berakhot 5:3 and Megillah 4:8-9.)  ...A few rabbis—not heretics!—were expelled (excommunicated or “banned”), and they were expelled because of their refusal to accept the will of the majoriry.  We never hear of the expulsion of any heretic or heretics.

[8] Again, Cohen explains this expertly, “Yavneh,” HUCA, 1984, p. 51:

A year or two before the church council of Nicea Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius, the leaders of contending parties, and asked them to realize that they were united by their shared beliefs more than they were separated by their debate on the nature of the second person of the Trinity.  Let them behave like members of a philosophical school who debate in civil fashion the doctrines of the school (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 2.71).  The council of Nicea ignored the emperor’s advice and expelled the Arians.  The sages of Yavneh anticipated Constantine’s suggestion.  They created a society based on the doctrine that conflicting disputant may each be advancing the words of the living god.

[9] See Exodus chapter 20.  As I mention in the sermon, I have intentionally not transliterated the Hebrew word יהוה , commonly known as the Tetragrammeton, or the four-lettered name of God.  In a point I will make later on in the sermon, we Jews do not even know how to pronounce this proper Name for God.  By rendering this Name in Hebrew letters, I hope to capture the distance this name places between God and the reader, who cannot—in any language—even sound out this name in one’s head.

[10] Midrash Pesikta Rabbati 21:6.  The teaching attributed to Resh Lakish is found in the Parma manuscript.  Furthermore, it should be noted that Resh Lakish’s teaching is build around Deuteronomy 5:4: Adonai spoke with you face to face.

[11] These three commentators, respectively are R. Moses b. Nachman (1195- ca. 1270, b. Spain, d. Israel), Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508, b. Portugal, d. Italy), and the Hezekiah b. Manoach, who penned the commentary Hizkuni (mid-13th Century France).  Their insights [and the above quotations] can all be found on the same page of Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Exodus, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2005), 156.  Hizkuni’s notion that every individual apprehends god in their own way has deep roots in the rabbinic tradition, and the closest parallel may be found at Pesikta Rabbati 21:6, quoted above.

[12] Thanks to the woman of footnote #3 for pointing out this artistic parallel to me.

[13] Deuteronomy 6:4.

[14] Exodus 33:20.

[15] It seems appropriate here to add that not going to services, or refraining from a thrice-daily recitation of the Shema might make an individual a “lapsed Jew” or perhaps even a “bad Jew” in the eyes of some authorities in the Jewish community.  However, I cannot locate a single authority who maintains that either of this [non-recitation or disbelief] makes an individual not Jewish.

[16] Moti Arad, The One who Profanes the Sabbath in Public: A Talmudic Phrase and its Historic Meaning, (Israel: Jewish Theological Seminary, 2009).

[17] Our Rabbis were close readers of Torah.  While Deuteronomy is silent when it comes to saying something specific about God, it has no problem dictating our deeds.  Following Deuteronomy’s verse of the Shema is a paragraph liturgically known as the V’ahavta: it exhorts us to demonstrate our fidelity to this One, albeit remote, God through each action we commit over the course of every day of our lives.  This motion from vague words about God to specific demands of human action are not accidental; the idea that we cannot define God yet know clearly what God expects of us is a remarkable—and remarkably—Jewish expression of religious commitment.

[18] Moses Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines, tr., (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), I:58.  His fourteen books of Jewish Law are known collectively as the Mishneh Torah.

[19] In fact, an individual’s belief in or doubts about the Divine are of such little impact to Judaism, that I maintain faith in God is simply irrelevant.

[20] Mishnah, tractate Yoma 8:9.

עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם, יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר. עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ, אֵין יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, עַד שֶׁיְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ. אֶת זוֹ דָּרַשׁ רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה, מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְיָ תִּטְהָרוּ (ויקרא טז), עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם, יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר. עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ, אֵין יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, עַדשֶׁיְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ .

[21] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in a fascinating lecture delivered in 106, proposed a slightly different theory, and claimed that while Yom Kippur atones for our sins against God, it does not purify us of their stain.  Even along these lines of [later] thought, the purification from sin which is needed on and after Yom Kippur is a very human action that has effects only in the human realm.  See, “Acquittal and Purification,” in Rabbbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance, translated by Pinchas Peli.

[22] When the Rabbis first proposed this shift in perspective, it went unquestioned by all.  By all, save one person, that is.  And while I couldn’t find room for her story in my sermon, I want to share it nonetheless.  The woman’s first name, which is all we have in the Talmud, is Beluriah, and she was a Roman  who studied with the famed Rabbi Gamliel to convert to Judaism.  As she read our Torah—which soon became her Torah—she recognized an inconsistency, and asked a serious question about the Jewish nature of God.  The book of Deuteronomy mentions that God pays no special attention to any human being, while the Priestly Benediction in the book of Numbers specifically asks that God pays attention to those being blessed.  We read the story in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh HaShanahah 17b:

The Gemara continues: Come and hear: Beloreya the convert once asked Rabban Gamliel: It is written in your Torah: “The great, mighty, and awesome God who favors no one” (Deuteronomy 10:17), and elsewhere it is written: “The Lord shall show favor to you and give you peace” (Numbers 6: 26). How can this contradiction be resolved?

Rabbi Yossi, who also happened to have served as a Priest in the waning days of the Second Temple, was sitting by Rabbi Gamliel and addressed Beluriah’s inquiry through a parable: when a person praises to repay another “on the life of a king”, and then fails to repay that person, the King doesn’t see himself injured party; all the King cares about is that the human situation is repaired.  To prove his point, Rabbi Yossi invokes our teaching about Yom Kippur: God doesn’t pay attention to people when they misspeak about God, or mis-use God’s name; the only time God might ever pay attention only when people injure one another and fail to atone.  [See Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh HaShanahah 17b:]

Rabbi Yosei the priest joined the conversation with her and said: I will tell you a parable. To what is this matter comparable? To a person who lent his friend one hundred dinars and fixed a time for repayment of the loan before the king, and the borrower took an oath by the life of the king that he would repay the money. The time arrived, and he did not repay the loan. The delinquent borrower came to appease the king for not fulfilling the oath that he had sworn by the life of the king, and the king said to him: For my insult I forgive you, but you must still go and appease your friend. Here also the same is true: Here, the verse that states: “The Lord shall show favor to you,” is referring to sins committed between man and God, which God will forgive; there, the verse that states: “God favors no one,” is referring to sins committed between a person and another, which God will not forgive until the offender appeases the one he hurt.

Following Beluriah, the Rabbinic dictum that Yom Kippur focus us on human interaction stood unquestioned for nearly three centuries.  When finally one student, the little-known Rabbi Joseph son of Havo, actually questioned this removal of the divine from our most sacred of days, his teacher, the great Sage Rabbi Abbahu, silenced him in argument.  Rabbi Joseph imagined that on Yom Kippur would could ask God to forgive us for what we do to others, and reminded his teacher of a verse from the book of Samuel: If a person commits a sin against another, let him pray to Elohim, to God.  His teacher had none of this.  Employing a pun, Rabbi Abbahu counters, “Who is this elohim of whom we ask forgiveness? Why it is only a human judge!”  [See Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yoma 87a:]

§ It was taught in the mishna: Yom Kippur atones for sins committed against God but does not atone for sins committed against another person. Rav Yosef bar Ḥavu raised a contradiction before Rabbi Abbahu: The mishna states that Yom Kippur does not atone for sins committed against a fellow person, but isn’t it written: “If one man sin against another, God [Elohim] shall judge him [ufilelo]” (I Samuel 2:25). The word ufilelo, which may also refer to prayer, implies that if he prays, God will grant the sinner forgiveness. He answered him: Who is Elohim mentioned in the verse? It is referring to a judge [elohim] and not to God, and the word ufilelo in the verse indicates judgment. Atonement occurs only after justice has been done toward the injured party by means of a court ruling.

[23] Notice how shema reappears yet again, intertwining our sense of hearing with both the need to understand and the expectation of obedience.

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