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Why I’m Not an Atheist

Jonathan WittenbergFilmed at Jewish Book Week 2013

I'm not an atheist. I believe that we are all connected by the one consciousness of God and that God is within and beyond all. In my talk I speak of why I hold these beliefs, how God makes me feel accountable and how these sensitivities are the foundation of my moral and spiritual being. I talk about how this has an impact on how I live my day to day life and makes me feel connected with and responsible towards all life around me.

Jonathan Wittenberg is Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues UK and Rabbi of New North London Synagogue.

How do you say all that you want to say in 10 or 12 minutes? It’s like the story of the Rabbi, Chazan and Shamas who were captured by cannibals and were given a last wish before they were cooked for dinner. The Rabbi says all my thoughts I have put them into one sermon, everything that’s gone through my heart ever, I’ve to say it before I die, my congregation won’t let me because it takes three hours. We hear your wish! Chazan? “Every melody that’s touched my soul is in one great Kadesh, I have to sing it before I die but my congregation won’t let because it takes two and a half hours!“ “Shamas?” “Let me die first!”

I’ll begin when you leave the M48 after crossing the old bridge after the river Severn and you take the beautiful small road up along the Wye Valley towards Tintern. The wooded hillside – it’s a road that Nicky my wife found described as you travel along it, getting more beautiful as you go. maybe that’s what made Wordsworth in 1798 feel touched by something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the setting sun’s, and the round ocean, and the living air, and in the mind of man This oneness speaks to me of my sense of God in all human life, in all of nature and all that is that which connects our consciousness whoever we are and I’ve sensed it when one lights a candle by the head of a dying person or in the care of a nurse in the intensive care unit or moments of closeness and love in the home and family. It’s not an added extra because to me it speaks with all the force of a commandment the Hebrew words convey it Yirat Adonai, the fear of Hashem not the fear of punishment although as important as that sometimes may be to prevent us from doing wrong but the way the mystics saw it. When you love someone, when you love something your greatest wish is not to hurt, not to destroy, not to damage but always, always to cherish and thus that presence of God speaks with a force of a moral commandment, there is no spirituality without ethics its nonsense and before it I feel accountable all the time, disturbingly so, and I have fantasy sometimes that when I die or even while I live that everything I have seen and that has seen me and knows me will speak back to me and say when you walked past me you ignored me and even a tree will say your consciousness was sour at that moment, and I will be held accountable for all my deeds. Thus this sense of beauty and grace, this sense of God within and beyond all is the foundation of my moral and all my spiritual being. How does one live it because it’s very nice to talk about it in theory. Let me begin with the ordinary and go to the difficult. Ordinary, everyday friends, family, children, partner, my wife, my parents, those close to me, o love touches one with that sense as well. I think of Else Laske-Schuler’s poem about her son Georg died in his 20s. She wrote ‘the love of you is the only likeness one can make for oneself of God. When the moon is in blossom in the sky it is like your life my child’. But daily life you forget, your shopping list and who’ll be at home and who cleans out the guinea pigs as was earlier mentioned and you lose the sense of wonder all too easily. When the children were young and we couldn’t get them to sleep when we were on holiday in the New Forest and it was midnight we would admit defeat, and we would pack them into the car and drive into the dark of the forest and park in the middle of nowhere and open the window and they would go “daddy.. it’s cold…” and I would say “Listen…an owl! Look a deer – would you like to come out and walk outside…?” and no, this was a step too far they refused every single time, partly because they knew they had their mother’s authority behind them because on one of our early dates in Scotland I said “Nicki, come for a night walk!” and I walked her straight into the mercifully shallow waters of the nearest Loch. But I hope we’ve been touched with a sense of wonder, and as the essence of our close relationships is to say we share our brief time in affection and compassion, and have we enhanced our sense of reverence, and wonder and God? And let me go to the difficult, because that’s very nice, but what about when there are quarrels, disagreements, when one feels hurt at work, misunderstood, misprised and you think that swine, that so and so, I’m so angry! Can one catch oneself as in one’s head one is thinking of retribution and say actually I’m not here on earth to be vindicated, I’m not alive to be right, I’m here to care, to heal, to understand and if it is the case that we are all connected by the one consciousness of God can I stand back can I stand back and help unravel that chain maybe of cruelties or hurts or injustice that has led the other person to treat me so and understand, and maybe let go. He hates me, he insults me, defeated me. Those who think such thoughts shall not be free from hate. Hate is not conquered by hate, hate is conquered by love, that is a law eternal. Thus the Buddhist scriptures, the Dharma Pada. And when it comes to the real conflicts between Arab and Israeli, between, God forbid, faiths and cultures in our world, can one afford to stand back and think religion is not ‘choose Jesus, Mohammad, Moses or be a blasphemer’. It is rather the long endeavor by humanity to wrap in history and culture the same intuition about the wonder and oneness of all things. And therefore I’m going to try to understand and disarm before I have to rearm…or is one a traitor if one thinks such thoughts? Can they be afforded? Or can we afford not to afford them? And if this seems and sometimes it feels like and oppressive burden of responsibility of God’s presence in all things can one step back and be neutral I don’t think so I don’t think there’s neutrality in life I think it’s another word for indifference, and I think wherever there is cruelty, wherever there is outcry of a Syrian refugee child or a child who’s beaten or abused, or hurt, or where there’s the destruction of our world, it cries to us and sometimes we hear it and sometimes it’s like what the Rabbi said about trees of the forest – that wherever a tree is needlessly destroyed a cry goes out from one end of the world to the other, but cannot be heard. And yet somewhere we know and must be committed. I realize that in speaking of these things I’m speaking of the standards not only of my dreams but the standards by which I have to measure my life’s failures, though also my life’s faith. Therefore let me end with a question about that, one of the sharpest and most poignant I have been asked. It was Limmud several years ago and somebody who cared about such matters said “Tell me the difference between these two statements – ‘God is ‘ and ‘God is love’.” I’ve been thinking about that ever since. ‘God is’ is the easier statement because it seems to me God – if one is going to have a sense of God at all – is also in our destruction not just our making, vachareh kichlot hakol, the famous adon olam hymn when all things are over, when the world is destroyed, God is in the horror and the indifference and the cruelty too. So ‘God is’, yes, but love? Love? And yet it seems to be we have in our hearts the ability to take this knotted rope of time that is drawn through our heart in our existence and turn it to reverence and care and compassion and love and if that is in us where else can it come from but God? So maybe in some corner of the universe where we live, God can be love if we have to courage and if we dare.

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