Believing That You Are God Is Heretical

A sermon by Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor: Yom Kippur morning 5784

In my years of teaching about interfaith relations, I have often been asked: ‘What is the root difference between Jews and Christians?’  My response, which surprises many, is that if there was a giant balance scale – one side, the pan was marked “faith” and the other pan was marked “action” – for Christians, the scale would tip deeply in the direction of “faith” and for Jews, the scale would dip towards “action.”   Were one to want to join most Christian Churches, one would be asked to sign a profession of faith, and if one were to want to join a synagogue, the only thing they would be asked to sign, is a check. 

In the Jewish community, belief in God is not requisite.  One can be a proud, fully-identified, synagogue attending Jew, and not believe in God. A 2011 study found that half of all American Jews have doubts about the existence of God, compared to 10–15% of other American religious groups. Many important Jews, openly challenged belief in God.  On a Wikipedia page, (I know, it is not a reliable source for academic study, but it will do in a pinch) there is a list of 247 important Jews who didn’t believe in God: Among them:

Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, David Ben Gurion, Carl Sagan, Oliver Sachs, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Betty Freidan, Emma Goldman, Yitzhak Rabin, Milton Friedman, Amos Oz, Nat Hentoff, Sigmund Freud, Emil Durkheim, Claude Levi-Strauss, Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, Randy Newman, Rodney Dangerfield, Larry David, Stanley Kubrick, Carl Reiner. Rob Reiner….

No, this is not a sermon advocating for those who don’t believe in God – but we must recognize that belief in God is not critical to one’s Jewish identity.  But, believing you are god….  Hmmmm.

There is a great scene in the Book of Exodus.  My teacher, Rabbi Bernard M. Zlotowitz z”l, used to call it “the Original Clash of the Titans.”  You are familiar with it from the Passover Seder.  Moses goes to Pharoah, and tells him that our God wants Pharoah to let God’s people go.  The text says that God hardened Pharoah’s heart, and Pharoah refuses.  But that never made sense to me until Bernie explained it – Pharoah believed himself to be the Sun God (go see Philip Glass’s opera Aknaten for a great pictorial).  Moses wasn’t there as God’s spokesperson – Moses was there as God’s stand-in – God’s surrogate.  The very presence of another god standing before Pharoah and making demands, infuriated Pharoah – this is what hardened Pharoah’s heart – this is the clash of the Titans.  Two gods in battle.  But the Torah has an agenda…  to teach us the difference between a real God and a false god.  Pharoah ruled his people by taking away their agency.  They were forced to work, without cessation.  They had no freedom to choose their tasks, or where they lived, or what they did.  Pharoah was the original autocrat.  This image is compared to the real God – the God that mandated rest and created Shabbat, the God that gave us rules – mitzvot – and hoped that we would follow them but didn’t force us.  God even places before us Good and Evil, Life and Death and asks us – begs us – to choose Life.

Following the biblical text, first by reading about the Judges, who ruled the Israelite community once they settled in the Promised Land and then the line of Kings starting with Saul and ending with Zadekiah we see, more often than not, the judges and kings were all clearly human – and thus, flawed.  While there were a few stand-outs (David and Solomon, come to mind) every one of them failed their people – and often those failures came through self-righteousness.  And it is that very human trait, to believe that one is god-like, that often creates danger. 

The great sage Hillel (Pirkei Avot 1:14) once asked, “Eem ayn ani li, mi li? U’c’she’ani l’atzmi, ma ani? V’eem lo achshav, aymatai?” If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? We often take the quotation as a whole, or pay attention only to the first stanza.  But it is behind that second stanza that true danger lies – if I am only for myself? What am I?  In terms of material things, you are selfish.  But in the realm of ideas, you are self-righteous.  It is against that trait of self-righteousness that Torah constantly rails. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs z”l offered, “The righteous see the good in all people; the self-righteous see only the bad.”  

Activist David Mixner: Self-righteousness is the enemy of civilized dialogue. Insisting that you are the only person that has the answer is deadly for an exchange of ideas.

Self-righteousness steels our belief that we have the corner of the market on truth – the brilliant  Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:

From the place where we are right 

Flowers will never grow 

In the spring. 

The place where we are right 

Is hard and trampled 

Like a yard. 

But doubts and loves 

Dig up the world 

Like a mole, a plow. 

And a whisper will be heard in the place 

Where the ruined House once stood

These ten days of repentance offer us the opportunity to check ourselves.  During our Yom Kippur prayers we sometimes beat our chests.  But perhaps we should touch ourselves lightly – softening our hardened hearts so that we might see our faults, and ask ourselves how others see us, and make the changes necessary to avoid that self-righteousness.

But there are those in the world around us that take that sense of self-righteousness to the levels that imbued Pharoah.  Like Pharoah, despots, autocrats, dictators:  all believe themselves to be god-like. Orban, Putin, Erdogan, Lukashenko, Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Un, Isaiah Afewerki, Duterte, Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir… and even some closer to home.  Their firm belief in the rightness of their thought cuts off any possibility of dialogue – there is no negotiation – changing one’s mind is an act of weakness.

Rabbi Larry Kushner, modern-day mystic and writer has taught: Torah is reducible to four words: I’m God.  You’re not. The Clash of the Titans is a great example.

As a Jew, you don’t have to believe in God – you just can‘t believe you are God.  

I am indebited to my friend Rabbi Sam Gordon for his inspiration and his teaching on this subject.

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