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    God without religion, religion without God


    hands skyNo Jewish hymn is as popular as Adon Olam. Not only in the synagogue but on the concert platform and wherever people sing. The rhyme and rhythm are a godsend to pop-composers.

    Never mind that it is highly religious poetry and many people (performers and audiences alike) sing it with gusto without covered heads.

    The great thing about Adon Olam, however, is not the poetic style or the musical renditions, but the theological paradox. The hymn has two halves, one philosophical and one emotional, and no-one seems to ask how they can co-exist.

    The first half is about the existence and nature of God. Its assertions come straight out of the classical works of Jewish philosophy. The second half begins with the words, V’Hu E-li – “He is my God”. “He is mine, my Redeemer liveth, He is my Rock in times of turmoil; into His hand I commend my spirit; I shall not fear.”

    It is the great paradox of religion – God’s distance and His closeness; the Supreme, Eternal Principle who loves and can be loved.

    For an analogy, look at Avinu Malkenu, “Our Father, our King”. Look at the words that follow the shofar blasts in the Rosh HaShanah Musaf service, “We are His children, we are His subjects”.

    A King is high and objective, a father is close and compassionate; a child is loving, a servant is fearful. In the first half of Adon Olam we speak of His nature, in the second half we yearn for His love and support.

    How do we come closer to Him? By religion, from a Latin root that means to bind or tie. By finding a relationship with Him.


    Many people turn up for Rosh HaShanah services and join in the singing without really believing a word of it.

    They mouth the word “God” but are unsure whether they believe in Him. They go along with the words of the prayers without taking them seriously. They would feel lost without their annual passing nod to religion, but they wouldn’t claim to be religious.

    So what’s the point of all these religious things if they lack conviction? Is there a point in religion when you’re not religious?

    On one level there are human needs which religion seems to satisfy – Hannah Arendt sums them up as the comfort, discipline and survival values of religion. In other words, religion is good for society even if God doesn’t come into it.

    The Talmud seems to go along with this view. Jews are marked, say the sages, by three things – they are rachmanim (compassionate), bay’shanim (modest) and gom’lei chassadim (kindly). Compassion means feeling for others. Modesty means not being blatant. Kindness means being helpful and supportive.

    When two of the sages (Avot D’Rabbi Natan chapter 4) were talking about life without the Temple, Rabbi Y’hoshua said that without sacrifices there was no means of atonement. Rabbi Yochanan said that the way to atonement was g’millut chassadim, doing kindly deeds. No apparent mention of God. No traditional dogmas or doctrines. No spiritual dimensions such as belief, prayer, awe and humility.

    Do God and spirituality make things better? I believe they do.

    They add truth: recognition that existence has non-earthly components with which man can commune. Humility: a means of measuring man’s littleness against God’s greatness and knowing that small though we might be, we all matter.

    Repentance: picking oneself up after having fallen and strayed. Aloneness: being solitary and yet never abandoned. Holiness: God is not grubby, nor do we have to be.

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