Basking in the Sunlight or Giving Religion a Good Name

I used to be confused about the Christopher Columbus story. The way I had always heard it, Columbus believed that the world was round, and everyone around him believed that the world was flat. Everyone thought that Columbus was a madman; if he tried to sail to India, they said, he would sail off the edge of the earth. I was confused because I knew that the ancient Greeks had said that the earth was a sphere, and had measured the earth’s circumference 1800 years before Columbus. If the Greeks knew that the world was round, why did people, 1800 years later, think that Columbus would fall off the edge of the world? According to what I read, the religious authorities had read a Biblical metaphor literally and had concluded that the earth must be flat like the floor of a tent and that the sky is flat like a canopy. According to the story that I read, countless times, Columbus had a major debate at Salamanica against many religious authorities. They said to him, “You think the earth is round? … Are you not aware that the holy fathers of the church have condemned this belief? … This theory of yours looks heretical.” Columbus had to be afraid because the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing and they could have killed him for heresy.
It turns out that this story is a fiction. It is made up. It’s true that Columbus did meet with a commission at Salamanica, but no one there thought that the earth was flat. All religious scholars thought that the earth was round. They did think, however, that the round world had a circumference that was so great that Columbus could not sail around it to the Indies in the necessary amount of time. By the way, they were right; Columbus had cooked his figures so that the earth would seem smaller and so that it would seem that he could reach the Indies. He could not, and he only got as far as what we call the Americas, but his desire to reach the Indies led, as you know, to calling the natives of the Americas “the Indians.”

“Wait a minute,” you say, “So where did this whole notion that people thought the earth was flat come from?” Good question.  If you would look at the history books from the 1870s, none of them had anything about the flat earth theory. After 1880, however, almost every history text stated that before Columbus, everyone believed that the earth was flat. What happened? In the years in between, some historians had pointed to two minor and obscure religious thinkers in the third and fifth centuries and based the idea that everyone believed the earth was flat on that, ignoring the fact that they were the only thinkers who felt that way. Why did the historians do this? Those were years when science and religion were seen as opposites, as being at war. By saying that religion believed in a flat earth, this fictional story made religion look stupid and narrow and dogmatic and stagnant. So long live Science and down with religion! When I ask educated people I know if people used to believe that the earth was flat, 9 out of 10 tell me “yes” and that Columbus demonstrated that they were wrong.

The flat earth myth gave religion a bad name. And yet it was the proponents of science and free speech that created a falsehood!  

My subject here is not the flat earth myth. I’m using it as an example of things that give religion a bad name. Opponents of religion made that story up so that people would look down on religion.

Okay, I can understand this. People who are against religion try to make religion seem bad. But what bothers me more, a lot more, is when proponents of religion give religion a bad name.
Just pick up the newspaper.
Look at Muslim clerics screaming for violence against America and Israel and Jewish people.

Look at the rigid dogma of Catholicism, the Catholic Church’s belief in its infallibility, the scandal of abuse and the scandal of its cover-up.

Look at certain movements in other religions that say that only their followers will get into Heaven and everyone else will go to Hell.

And yes, look at the dogmatism of certain forms of Judaism and remember that our religion has its own share of people who think they know it all.

What has happened to these religious movements? There is a great speech by a character in the movie Dogma who says that there are many wonderful religious ideas. Once these ideas become frozen solid into dogmas, however, there can only be tension and fighting with those who do not hold the same dogmas.

Judaism has sometimes fallen into the trap of dogmatism, but it works its way out of the traps and frees itself once again. Ours is a religion that is remarkably free in thought and expression. It is freer than most of us realize.

I want to tell you a story to illustrate this freedom. It is a true story, from this year, and as always I have asked permission of the people involved to tell you about it.

A wonderful young woman who grew up in this congregation calls me and tells me that she is in love with a very nice young man who was born Christian but who is in fact an Atheist. She had always wanted to marry a Jewish man. Her boyfriend thinks that Judaism is a fine religion, and he agrees with its values, and would be more than willing to convert, and so it’s too bad that this couldn’t work.

So I ask, “What’s the issue?”
And she says, “Obviously, there’s a problem, because he’s an atheist and Judaism believes in G-d.”
And I say, “But what’s the issue? Why can’t an atheist convert to Judaism?”

This bright and interested young man studied Judaism. He read significant parts of the Bible, a set of books that revolves around the belief in G-d, and gave astute and engaged interpretations. He studied Jewish thinkers like Spinoza and Kaplan, who had their own questions about G-d. He studied and experienced many Jewish rituals and went through the process of conversion and will marry his beautiful bride in a ceremony that I will be thrilled and proud to conduct under the chuppa.

Why didn’t these nice people think that conversion to Judaism was possible? They had an idea in their heads. I understand why they had that idea. When we pray, when we perform the rituals of our religion, even when we talk in normal conversations, the name of G-d is mentioned all the time. But belief in G-d can mean many things.

Let me give you a prominent example. Reconstructionism is a movement of Judaism. There is a Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary and many Reconstructionist synagogues. Reconstructionism does not believe that G-d is a Being. Instead, it believes that G-d is that in this world that makes for good. When Reconstructionists pray, they pray to the good inside themselves, not to a Being outside themselves. If I were an Atheist, I could certainly pray to myself in the hope that I would do good things in my life. I could be a Reconstructionist in the blink of an eye. So if Reconstructionism is a movement of Judaism that is atheistic, why can’t an atheist become Jewish?

Let me tell you one of my favorite stories, one of the great Jewish stories I’ve ever heard. Once there was a Jewish man in Poland who was a great apikoros. An apikoros, the same word as Epicurean, means a heretic, someone who does not believe in G-d. This man did not believe in G-d. He considered himself to be the biggest atheist around. But a friend of his told him that while he was a big apikoros, there was a bigger one, Hymie of Warsaw, the Greatest Apikoros in Poland.

Well, the man immediately took a night coach to Warsaw. He would ride all night and by the next morning he would find this Hymie and he would have an atheist contest with him. He would show Hymie, and everyone else, that he, and not Hymie, was the greatest apikoros in Poland.

When he got off the coach in Warsaw, he asked someone where he could find Hymie, the Greatest Apikoros in Poland. He was told that he should go over to the shul. a couple of blocks away. “The shul?” the man said, “You must be making a mistake. I’m looking for Hymie, the Greatest Apikoros in Poland. No self-respecting heretic would be caught dead in a synagogue. There must be some mistake!”  “No,” he was told, “It’s eight o’clock in
the morning. You’ll find him at that shul.”

Muttering that there must be some mistake, the man went to the shul. He decided that Hymie must be carrying a sign outside the shul that said that God did not exist.

But Hymie was not outside the shul with a sign. He asked the shammos at the door, “I’m looking for Hymie the Greatest Apikoros in Poland. Where is he?”
”He’s inside,” he was told.
So the man went in and found that a service was going on. Men were davening with their taleisim over their heads, with tefillin on their heads and arms. He looked for a man who might be Hymie, but he couldn’t figure it out. He asked a davener, “Where’s Hymie?” Without a word, the davener pointed to the person who was in front of the Ark, leading the service. Now growing angry at what he was seeing, the man marched right up to Hymie, and demanded, “Are you Hymie, the Greatest Apikoros in Poland?”
“Shhh,” said Hymie.
“I’ve come all the way to Warsaw, I’ve traveled all night, and I demand to know if you are truly Hymie!”
“Shhh,” said Hymie, and just kept shuckling and davening and leading the service.
The man waited, impatiently, until the service was over. After the last prayer, everyone went up to Hymie and congratulated him. “Yasher Koach, Hymie,” they all said. Hymie did not respond. He put some money in the puschke, the tzedakah box. He helped an older man to get out of his seat and guided him as he walked.  He helped a man who was bringing in some bread. He made his way to the back, taking off his tefillin, wrapping them carefully, taking off his tallis, washing his hands and saying the motzi, and then eating the bread. He looked up at the man and said quietly, “Good morning, sir. I am indeed Hymie the Greatest Apikoros in Poland. What can I do for you?”

“You call yourself a self-respecting apikoros! How dare you? You’re here in a shul, with tallis and tefillin, leading the service for your community. How is it possible that you have a national reputation for being a heretic?”
“I am the greatest apikoros in Poland,” said Hymie, “But I’m Jewish.”

I want to make sure you get the point of the story.
Belief is hard.
We believe in G-d, we don’t believe in G-d.
We struggle with G-d.
We argue with G-d about the human condition.
We wonder about why bad things happen to good people.
We scream about all of the evil in this world.
We rail at G-d for all of the terrible things that happen, and we ask why.
Hymie the Greatest Apikoros in Poland had no doubt gone through all these questions.
And he concluded that there really was no G-d at all.
But he was still Jewish.
To be Jewish means to appreciate life and care about others.
To be Jewish is to have hope: hope that life has meaning, hope in the future, hope in each other and the power of family and community.
And Hymie, despite his heresies, still held onto these hopes, and he expressed those hopes by putting on his tallis and praying in the context of his people and his religion.
And Hymie knew that in his life, he’d had faith and lost it and found it again, that faith is not a simple solid line but a fluid shaky wavering spiral that twists and turns with every passing breeze of life.
And just because he was in a stage in which he could not find G-d, did not mean that he was going to throw his people and his religion away.
To believe in a dogma is to think that the earth is flat; in such a system, to disbelieve is to fall off the edge of the flat earth.
Hymie knew that belief and disbelief are round, that faith goes around,
that the world is round and truth is round.

Let me tell you a story that many of you will be able to relate to. The hero of this story is named Milton. Milton lives in New York City. While on a trip to Dallas, Texas, Milton gets desperately sick. He is laid up for a very long time. He is not even allowed outside. And then comes a day when he is allowed to get up and go outside. He goes to the door. He opens the door, and the sunlight greets him. That was his experience; that was the whole thing: After he had been ill he walked to the door and crossed the threshold and saw the sunlight. He saw that the sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. And he basked in the golden glow of the sunlight. And as he basked in its glory, he looked at all the people walking and driving and not noticing the sunlight. He realized that he had been one of those people. He said to himself, “How precious is the sunlight but alas, how careless of it are people. How precious—how careless.”

And he saw, very clearly, what the difference is when you have G-d or when you don’t. He says that it doesn’t matter what you mean when you say G-d. To have G-d means that you have a Commander and that you have a duty like a soldier. Your duty is to love, your duty is to feel the sunlight, and your duty is to feel how precious everything about life is.

The Milton of the story is the late Rabbi Milton Steinberg. He was one of the great rabbis of the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote a novel called As A Driven Leaf about an ancient rabbi who dared to question the existence of God. But this man who had argued so hard for what he called a mature idea of God now found all of his ideas irrelevant. Listen to what he says:

Given G-d, everything becomes more precious. That sunshine in Dallas was not a chance effect, a lucky accident. It was an effect created by the great Artist, the master Painter of Eternity. And because it came from G-d’s brush it is more valuable even than I had at first conceived. And the laughter of children, precious in itself, becomes infinitely more precious because the joy of the cosmos is in it.
And the sweetness of our friends’ faces is dearer because there are fragments of an infinite sweetness.
All of life is the more treasurable because a great and Holy Spirit is in it.

The great Rabbi Milton Steinberg, who wrote the book about questioning the existence of G-d, arrived at a point in his life when he was talking like an old-fashioned believer like me, about the power of G-d and the spirit of G-d in our lives.

This is a perfect example of why Judaism does not worry very much about what you say you believe or don’t believe.
Call yourself an apikoros, an atheist, a Reconstructionist, it just doesn’t matter.
Call G-d the Force, the Power that makes for salvation, the good inside us, we don’t care. What we do care about is whether you appreciate the beauty of life and whether you do your duty and help other human beings.

And so I said to my young atheist friend: I don’t care whether you believe in G-d, but I do care whether you have radical amazement about the world. I want you to appreciate the love that you have with your fiancée. I want you to love life. I want you to care about others.
He told me that he would do all of those things. He also told me something very moving, that his father, a confirmed atheist, did not frown on his conversion to Judaism. To his surprise, his father told him that he was lucky to have found an identity and a community that he wished he had had. I guess atheism never gave him what he needed, what we all need.

People give religion a bad name. Opponents of religion said that religious people thought that the earth was flat when everyone knew it was round. They just wanted to make religion look bad. Certain religions give religion a bad name by their dogmatism, by the way they want to close things down.

But Judaism wants to open the world up, to ideas, to discovery, to debate and discussion. And Judaism does not need to tell you what to think about everything. But Judaism does want to tell you how to feel.

You have a duty, to stop being careless, to realize how precious everything is. Love is precious. Steinberg opened the door to the sunlight. That’s what I’m asking you to do in the next year: Open the door and bask in the sunlight and feel the power of God in your life.