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What if We're Wrong?

posted Sep 25, 2017, 3:12 PM by Heidi Hoover
Sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashana 5778--September 21, 2017

Almost a thousand years ago, our great sage Maimonides codified 13 principles of Jewish belief. Each of them begins with the same phrase: Ani maamin b’emunah shlemah—I believe with perfect faith—and they conclude with statements including: that God is the Creator of the world, that God is a unity, that God has no shape or form, that it is right to pray to God and only God, that the Messiah will come, and a few more.

Statements of belief like this exist in faith traditions besides Judaism, in the form of creeds that are recited as part of the liturgy. In Judaism we don’t really have that. Yes, we have the Sh’ma, when we declare that God is one, and we recite a series of actions we are obligated to carry out, including loving God, teaching our children, speaking of these words when we lie down and when we get up, in our home and on our way, and so on through the Sh’ma and the v’ahavta. But there is no part of our service in which we say: I believe with perfect faith in—well, anything.

In faith traditions that include recitation of a creed in the liturgy, there is an educational component—teaching worshippers what they’re supposed to believe—and a component of weeding out those who don’t believe the “right” things. But Maimonides’s 13 principles of belief—what he thought Jews needed to believe—did not make their way into our services, perhaps partly because in Judaism, doing is more important than believing, even though belief is also important. After all, Maimonides did take the trouble to codify what he thought were the correct Jewish beliefs, what Jews are supposed to believe with perfect faith.

Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah. I believe with perfect faith. What a powerful and difficult statement!

Over the past year, as some of you know, I became close with a number of young Israelis doing a year of service in Brooklyn between high school and going into the army. A short time before they returned to Israel, I had a long conversation with one of the young men, Omer.

Omer told me that he wants to believe in God and our tradition, and that he feels like he “half believes,” but that he can’t believe all the way because he needs proof first. It wasn’t our first conversation about Judaism, and he mentioned how I talk about the Bible as not being history, and that until you get to the books of Kings, there’s no external evidence, archeological or otherwise, for the people and events in the Bible. Even once we have archeological evidence, that doesn’t mean that the specific stories happened, historically, as they are described.

This doesn’t bother me. The Bible is not a history book. It’s doing a different job. It’s teaching us about God’s relationship with the world and with us, and as my teacher Dr. Ora Horn Prouser says, it was written by people trying to communicate as best they could what their experience of God was. As humans we are limited, our language is limited and our brains are limited, and God is beyond limits, so we can’t fully accomplish the task. But the Bible is the best evidence we have of what God wants from us. So we read it, and interpret it, as our predecessors have done for thousands of years, and we try to find our best understanding of God, bringing our sense of what justice is to meet the text and figure out what we’re supposed to be doing to make this world better.

The Bible not only doesn’t offer history, it doesn’t offer proof. So I said to Omer, “You’re not going to get proof. We can’t prove God’s existence, we can’t prove that our tradition is right. That’s what faith is. It’s believing in something you can’t prove.”

Then I asked him, “Why do you need proof?” And his answer went to the core of something very, very important. He said softly, “What if I’m wrong? What if someday someone finds proof that the things I believe are right are actually the things that are wrong? And the things I believe are wrong in our tradition are actually the ones that are right? Like someone finds proof that those parts of the Bible where the Israelites go into a city and kill everyone are right? If that happened, I couldn’t be Jewish anymore.”

Omer talked about the parts of the Bible where people kill people, but that wasn’t his deepest concern. You see, this year in Brooklyn was an especially important year for Omer, because this past year he came to terms with being gay, and he came out. So when he says he’s afraid someone will find proof that he is wrong, he doesn’t just mean proof that his beliefs are wrong, but that who he is is wrong. That being gay is wrong.

There are two well-known passages in Leviticus that seem to say that being gay is wrong, and that is how those passages have traditionally been interpreted. Many people, Jews and Christians alike, continue to follow that traditional interpretation and believe that being gay is wrong. Some rabbis have wrestled with those passages and their traditional interpretations, finding different ways to understand them. I follow those rabbis, and I think Omer would too.

These newer understandings of the text hinge on the fact that in the Torah, a specific act is prohibited, but there is no sense of context—it doesn’t mention relationships or settings. This leaves open possibilities that the text is actually a prohibition of cult prostitution, which existed in other religions at the time, or a prohibition of rape. It also only mentions men. So regardless of proof, even what the Bible is actually saying is rarely as clear-cut as some people would have us believe.

Nevertheless, the understanding in our tradition for much of its history has been that being gay is wrong, though that isn’t my tradition, and it isn’t Omer’s, and it isn’t the tradition of the Reform Movement. And he and I, and I think most likely many of you, are pretty sure that we are right, and that LGBTIQ people deserve all the same rights as straight people, and their loving relationships are just as holy as straight people’s. Some of us prefer to ignore what our Bible and tradition have said before, and some of us, like me, prefer to wrestle with tradition and find interpretations that feel correct and seem to promote justice.

But tradition is strong, and there are those who continue to cling to traditional interpretations, and so the uncertainty comes, and the question comes: What if I’m wrong. What if we’re wrong?

We have embraced this tradition, this God, and found ways to understand it that we want very much to believe are right, because if it turned out that our ways of understanding it were wrong, it would be worse than feeling stupid, it would be worse than just being wrong, it would mean the crumbling of our foundations, of our identity, of the meaning underpinning our lives. So the question, “What if we’re wrong?”, if we are willing to really face it, is a terrifying question.

I sometimes get phone calls from soon-to-be parents anticipating the birth of a baby boy. With circumcision less widespread in this country than it used to be, they agonize over whether or not to have a bris. The underlying fear for many of them is, “What if he grows up and tells us we were wrong to circumcise him?”

In our Torah reading today, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham obeys, right to the point that an angel has to stop him from plunging the knife into his son. The Torah doesn’t tell us if Abraham had doubts, or what he thought was going to happen. What if he was wrong?

In the book of Judges, there’s a chieftain called Jepthah who makes a vow to God that if he wins a battle, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he returns home. He does win, and when he goes home his daughter comes out to meet him. He ends up sacrificing her. The rabbis of our tradition tell us that he was wrong to make the vow, and then wrong again to carry it out. Apparently he thought he was right, and because of it, a woman was killed.

When we interpret Torah, and when we make momentous decisions in our lives that impact ourselves and others, we cannot know for sure that we are right. In some cases, we may eventually have proof that we’re right or wrong. In some cases, there will never be proof, and all we have is belief, faith.

There are those who believe with perfect faith in God, in tradition, in things that cannot be proven. I think those people are few and far between. Even Maimonides with his 13 statements of faith, each beginning “ani maamin b’emunah shleimah”—I believe with perfect faith—I wonder if those statements were aspirational, and that he wanted to have perfect faith, but even for him, I wonder if doubt would sometimes sneak in.

We are Israel—wrestlers with the Divine. If we had proof, we would be divine ourselves. It isn’t going to happen.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, cultivate faith, and believe that when we have wrestled as hard as we can, we have come to an answer that is right. It is good and right to ask, “What if we’re wrong?” The awareness that we might be wrong is what gives us humility—we’re not so quick to condemn those who believe something different.

At the same time, we must also recognize that not all beliefs are equally okay. When I told my father that I was converting to Judaism, he responded by telling me I couldn’t revoke my baptism. I said, “That’s not what the Jews believe.” He responded, “So it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere?”

“No,” I said, “but I do believe that some beliefs are just as good as some other beliefs.”

A sincere Nazi is still wrong, and that ideology is still evil. Ani maamin et zeh b’emunah shleimah. I believe this with perfect faith.

There are many, many good, just Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and people of many other religions. Ani maamin et zeh b’emunah shleimah. I believe this with perfect faith.

It is right to recognize that every one of us is made in God’s image, and God made us the way God wants us—in all our diversity of race, gender identity, personality, everything—and God wants us to show each other compassion and support each other. Ani maamin et zeh b’emunah shleimah. I believe this with perfect faith.

I believe that we are right to be open and accepting of people who are very different from ourselves. I support Omer one hundred percent as a gay man, as well as everyone who is LGBTIQ. I believe that God does too. It is right to reject those who undermine human dignity by rejecting people with different gender identities.

Believing with perfect faith is not the same as having proof. But it is as close as we can get. Might we be wrong? Yes. Are we probably at least partly wrong? Yes. But ani maamin b’emunah shleimah—I believe with perfect faith, which to me means that I am believing as hard as I can, that when our mistakes come from trying to bring more love into the world, from trying to validate and support more people as who they are, from trying not to hurt people but to make people’s lives better, that God will forgive those mistakes. Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah, I believe with perfect faith that God—whatever, however, God turns out to be, if and when we do find out—will give us credit for trying to do good.

Let us have the courage to believe—in God, whatever that word “God” means to us; in our tradition; in our sense of right and wrong. Let us wrestle with our texts, with our tradition, with our secular world, bringing our experiences and feelings, our sense of justice and compassion, to meet what we have from those who came before. Let us respect our own experiences and use them to inform the way we understand what our tradition and our God want from us. Let us have respect for what came before, but the freedom to interpret differently for today. Our tradition is rich, and full, and worthwhile. The people who came before us gave us interpretations that help us and interpretations that hurt us.

One of the stories we’ve received in the Talmud tells us that the Torah is not in heaven—it is here for us to interpret. Our responsibility is to find interpretations that support the best that is in humanity. Judaism and the Torah will only live on if we continue to engage with their wisdom, entwining it with the wisdom we are developing in our time. And the richness that is there, in the Torah and in our tradition, mean that even though it is hard—it is sometimes anti-gay, and often misogynistic, and has a negative attitude toward non-Jews that is difficult for a congregation like ours—it is worthwhile to stick with this tradition for its ability to change; for its commitment to preserving all arguments, not just the majority one; and for the many, many good teachings it offers.

This is the time of year when we evaluate where we think we might be with God. We consider what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong in the past year. Some of us, maybe, feel that our faith could have been stronger. Some of us altogether reject the idea of faith in what we cannot prove. And here we all are, praying together on Rosh Hashanah.

I’d like to suggest that we can use this time to evaluate the extent to which our choices this year have supported the identities of others—others whose identities don’t impact our own, and who just want to be able to freely be who they are. To what extent have our choices this year contributed to stopping those who hate or discriminate based on the identity of others?

Ani maamin b’emunah shleimah—I believe with perfect faith that we can be better. I believe we can make the world better. I believe that the forces of kindness, compassion, and love are larger and stronger than the voices of hate. Let us not lose sight of that. Let us remember that more people in this country want to accept than reject.

In the interest of full disclosure, in case this wasn’t clear: I don’t really believe there is such a thing as perfect faith. I also don’t believe in truth with a capital T. But I do believe that we must commit to doing the best we can in this world, and that “ani maamin b’emunah shleimah”—I believe with perfect faith—is an aspirational goal when we determine to the best of our ability that what we believe is true.

Let us never give up. Let us wrestle, and wrestle, and hold on to our tradition until we get from it a blessing. Because the blessings are there. Ani maamin et zeh b’emunah shleimah. I believe this with perfect faith. May each of us find the blessing we need this year.

L’Shana tovah u’metukah. May the new year be a good and sweet year for you.