Wrestling with God: A Profound Moment

by Dan Seltzer, presented at August 19 Shabbat Service

With a sense of relief that comes with confessing, but also in the Socratic spirit of “the only thing I know is that I don’t know anything,” tonight I am going to talk about whether I believe God exists. If this topic makes you feel uncomfortable, I assure you there’s at least one other person in the room that feels the same way. Me. But first, I want to set the stage by describing a profound moment in my life. The summer after graduating college, some friends and I took a week-long canoe trip through the Allagash River Wilderness. The Allagash River flows for about 90 miles in very nearly the northern most point in Maine. It is remote. We drove from Philadelphia to Maine with our gear and, at an outfitter’s, rented canoes, arranged for transportation to bring us back to our car at the end of the trip, and discussed the wisdom of writing our last wills and testaments. The outfitter flew us by sea plane the last several miles to a series of lakes that feed the Allagash. We got our gear into our canoes, and on a beautiful sunny afternoon, we paddled off toward the head of the Allagash River. We spent our first night on a small island, eating freshly caught fish for our dinner. We were exhausted from the long day and settled down in our sleeping bags, hearing only an occasionally loon, and the small waves lapping the edge of our island camp site. The night was cloudless and moonless, and unpolluted by light from any town or city. Countless stars illumined the pitch black sky. I’d never seen our galaxy, the Milky Way, as such a clear, dominant, and distinctive feature of the night sky. I realized how apt a nick name is the Milky Way: a white river of stars gracefully strewn across the sky from horizon to horizon. I was aware that I was looking out, not only into space, but also back in time. Whether space is infinite and time eternal, I didn’t and don’t know. I understood that the most distant light had traveled billions of years to reach Earth. I was aware that some of the pin points of light were actually other galaxies, some larger than the Milky Way.

I truly could not comprehend the enormity within my gaze. I remember feeling not lonely, insignificant, or afraid, but that I was very much a part of the universe, feeling grateful for the experience of being in it. So, where did all this come from— the universe, the galaxies, the stars, the Earth, life? Are they the work of a divine, supreme, being?

Here’s the confession part: I don’t believe they are. Concerning what caused the universe to be, I don’t know. I believe in the so-called “big bang theory,” that proposes that all matter was created in an initial explosion. I can’t answer what existed before the big bang, or what caused it. But I don’t believe that it was a divine, supreme, being. I understand the word “God” to be short-hand for “the ultimate reality.” I don’t know what “the ultimate reality” is. I accept that the human mind may never be able to understand it.

Am I an atheist? Until very recently, I thought I was. But Rabbi Maderer led me to an interesting realization: atheists believe that God doesn’t exist. I believe that God means “the ultimate reality.” I believe an ultimate reality exists; therefore, I believe God exists and I am not an atheist. Hmpf! I have struggled with the idea of God for many years.

I have long felt uncomfortable talking about God’s existence within our synagogue, a community dedicated to, among many other things, worshipping God. Should any of us feel uncomfortable talking about God in our synagogue? I don’t think we should, although I think it takes some getting used to.

Every year, at Saturday morning Torah study, the group discusses a story in Genesis. In it, Jacob dreams of wrestling with a divine being, and receives a new name, “Israel.” And wouldn’t you know, that Isra-el means “wrestles with God.” The narrative describes how the sons of Jacob became Israelites, who later became Jews. Our Sages’ struggles with God are recorded in the Talmud, as are the struggles of Jewish philosophers and theologians in subsequent writings. This tradition of struggling makes me feel connected over time and space to ancient tribes and their modern descendants who have struggled with God.

I feel connected to wonderers, storytellers, thinkers, and scribes who also may have gazed at the night sky attempting to understand our origin. My understanding of the creation of the universe leads me to believe that we are all connected to each other because the atoms that make up me, you, and everything else in the universe were created during the big bang. And I’d like to conclude with some lyrics written by the physicist/songwriter, Joni Mitchell: “We are stardust, we are golden. We are million year old carbon. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.” Shabbat shalom.