Rabbi Alexander Kress
I spent the majestic summers of my childhood at Camp Harlam in Pennsylvania - a crown jewel of the URJ camping system - much like Camp Eisner in our region. Camp instilled in me a love of Shabbat, the importance of community, and the joy of taking two or three showers a day. Only at camp did my week orbit around the gravitational pull of Judaism.
But in one significant moment, camp let me down. I have a vivid memory of a shiur (Hebrew for lesson) one morning in which we were discussing our beliefs about God. The space felt safe, and we freely expressed our feelings on God under the shade of a big tree. After making it all the way around the circle, the rabbi leading the session simply said, “I don’t believe in God.”
“What?” I thought. “The rabbi doesn’t believe in God?” It was an “a-ha” moment in a negative way because it enabled me to cease wrestling with God. It justified an immature disbelief and let my nascent theology off the hook with the short quip, “I don’t believe in God.”
After five years of theological dormancy, I encountered the ideas of Baruch Spinoza in college. I had never entertained or explored ideas of God outside of the biblical character. Without grasping the sophistication of Spinoza’s philosophy, I quickly latched on to his panentheism. I found the elementary notion that God and nature are one,, relatable. I enjoyed the idea that God is the force of the universe that everything unfolds from; an ever-unfurling chain of events. I loved that Spinoza’s God was the antithesis of the Bible’s anthropomorphic God that I failed to relate to. Ultimately, the ideas of Baruch Spinoza reignited my wrestling match with God. However, my reflex response to, “Do you believe in God?” remained a curt, “No.”
Not until I reached rabbinical school did God have any place in my Judaism. In retrospect, that makes me incredibly sad. God is not just a character in the Torah. God is an attitude, a presence, the innate feeling in your kishkes of right and wrong. For well over a thousand years, our tradition has understood that we cannot confine God to a biblical box, to an archetype that is childishly easy to deny. Yet somehow, those sophisticated ideas of God never made it into my Jewish education.
Over the course of the year, I am teaching a course around the question, "Is Judaism God-optional?" In a buffet of theological novelties, I promise the faithful, the questioning and the atheist will all sink their teeth into thought-provoking, meaningful ideas of God that just might make you change your answer to the question: Do you believe in God?
Rabbi Alex Kress