God is Not One

star of david stain glassRabbi Jeffrey Sirkman

Larchmont Temple


A rabbinic Monday morning, two weeks ago…Not the lo-key, late August morning I anticipated.Two encounters—one hour after the other, neither calendared, but both openly received, not alone for the opportunity to help which they afforded me,

But for the insight they brought…on the meaning of this moment.

10-ish…A young 20-something seeker, a Bar Mitzvah 10 or so years ago,

whom I had not seen since, yearning for spiritual meaning…

With music as his passion,

he’d taken a dip in the soothing wading pools of Hinduism and Buddhism;

read the New Testament and attended Church,

coming away touched by the compelling force of Christianity;

and was up to his waist in the language and musical tradition of the Sufis,

hoping to travel to Pakistan and experience the transcendence firsthand.

Yet, as his inner longing was to come home to Judaism,

One problem persisted:

“All of these other religions seem to have something I can hold onto…

Jesus is such a source of love; Mohammed a mystical model…

Buddha a tangible ideal.  What’s Judaism’s answer?

I mean, what can it give me to hold onto Rabbi?”

So I told him: “Judaism’s answer…What can you hold onto?…

I would have to say—the question…”

Around 11:30 AM, coming back from a crucial coffee run,

There waiting was Cantor Lanie Katzew, accompanied by a camera-toting woman.

“Jeff, the URJ is teaming with the Odyssey Network in producing

90 second messages in celebration of International Peace Day, September 21st.  Can you tape a spot now?”…..Not exactly advance notice…

But after being miked up and getting into position, all the while thinking about the right message from our tradition,  the producer gave me the set-up:

“OK Rabbi,  How will you bring the world together for Peace Day?”

So I began my 90 second spot:

“World Peace begins when we recognize…we are NOT all the same.”

Both the young 20-something seeker and the World Peace producer

were looking for an answer I could not quite give.


Huston Smith, Philosopher of Religion, wrote The World’s Great Religions

back in the  early 90’s, [a reprint from 1958] where he asserted,

in reference to the spectrum of faiths: “It is possible to climb life’s mountain from any side, but when the top is reached, the trails converge…Differences make for diverse starting points, but beyond them, the same goal beckons.”

Yet it is in this faith fallback position, comforting as the notion might be,

that ‘all religions lead to the same place,’ where our trouble arises.

For if we believe that the debates on essential details do not matter;

If the core spiritual questions, the ritual practice, the theological propositions

Are but minor issues, easily enough resolved,

then we are not only doing a disservice to religious diversity, but failing to comprehend a truth that is key to understanding most every faith-related question confronting our world…

and to knowing our true spiritual selves.

Much as we believe otherwise, as Jews—religiously speaking, GOD is not One….

In his recent book of the same name, B.U. Prof of Religion

Stephen Prothero explains why…

“You cannot practice religion in general any more than you can speak language in general…What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point.  And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world…They diverge when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it. Christians see sin as the problem, and salvation from sin as the goal.  Buddhists see suffering as the problem, and liberation from suffering as the religious goal…For Islam the problem is pride,

the solution is submission. For Confucianism the problem is chaos, the solution is  social order…For Judaism the problem is exile, the religious goal is return to God.”

[God Is Not One, pgs 9, 11-12]

The particular path a faith-system forges on its climb may lead to very different peaks,

Or, at the very least, to seeing what’s at the top from diametrically opposed perspectives.

Christianity’s God is frontal—a meeting that’s face to face…

Islam’s God is standing over—a kneeling view looking up…

Judaism’s God is a glimpse from the back, or maybe just the feet…

For Hinduism, God is a prism projecting assorted images…

For the Buddhist, the mountain-top is empty. God is simply not there…


Our tendency as human beings longing for interconnection,

is to diminish difference, to sweep it all under the rug.

But it need not take the horror of 9/11 to remind us that

Recognizing just how different religions are—in life-perspective and practice;

In the way they approach problems of relationship;

In their read on reality and the vision to which they aspire,

Will enable us to better deal with our world.

“Even if religion makes no sense to you,

you need to make sense of religion to make sense of the world.”

When one of Gabriel’s best friends since middle school, Mattie Z.

Asked me a few years back what he’d selected as his major at Georgetown,

It only took me 8 guesses to figure it out.

“Religion…Really?  I was a Religion major at BU, but Mattie, you?”

So he wisely explained:

“Rabbi, if I really want to understand the world, I have to understand religion.”

WHY is it so easy for the New Atheists to write-off faith

as not simply foolish, but the root of all evil?

Because they conveniently, naively, lump all faith-systems into one.

So Prothero posits:

“Is religion toxic or tonic?  Is it one of the world’s greatest forces for evil,

or one of the world’s greatest forces for good?”

His astute answer: “Yes and Yes.”

Difference matters immensely, not simply between religions but within them,

and our ability to discern a religion’s core questions & the discrete path that paves,

as well as to draw distinctions between families of a single faith,

will prove more important to our collective well-being than we could possibly imagine.


Consider two faith-systems in question, unrelated at first glance, yet when you get to the heart of the matter,  both with the same principal, surprising answer: GOD is not One.


Question 1…To build or not to build?

When it comes to the 13-story Islamic Center—mosque included,

Two blocks north of the World Trade Center, that is the question.

Proponents make the claim that it would be a space for interfaith dialogue and bridge-building, [based, btw, on the model of JCC’s like the 92nd Street Y].

In an impassioned speech with Lady Liberty as his backdrop,

Mayor Bloomberg pleaded for American values to win the day.

“The attack [9 years ago] was an act of war. Our first responders defended not only our city but our country…We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting.”

Trying to block the project just doesn’t make sense;

it goes against the principle of freedom that we, as Americans, stand for.

Of course, when you lost a loved one on 9-11, just how much can you stand for?…

Emotions trump rational argument hands down.

Bill Doyle, whose 25 year-old son was killed, described his feeling:

“High up in the air you have a 13-story mosque, outshining the memorial itself.

Its almost a slap in the face.”

Speaking on behalf of the Islamic Center’s opponents, ADL National Director

Abe Foxman defended the right of victims’ families, arguing:

“Their anguish entitles them to positions others would characterize as irrational or bigoted.”

Reason has little to do with it.

Even the head of an organization dedicated to combat bigotry

draws the line for religious freedom when it crosses the heart.

And so we are left with battle lines drawn—with the faith/freedom conundrum.

Are we sanctioning a tribute to terrorism, or affirming a monument to tolerance?

Is this a question of preserving democratic ideals or upholding human decency?

Or is it the ultimate real estate catch 22: “Location, location, location…?”

Before you reject the emotional impact of selected space, remember that Polish Carmelite Catholic convent built on the blood-drenched grounds of Auschwitz?

The one Jews demanded be moved from the Nazi Death Camp,

And whose protracted protest/counter-protest aroused shameful prejudice on all sides?…

For if NIMBY [not in my back yard] is the operative principle, how very far we have come from the words George Washington penned to the Touro Synagogue, [in Newport, R I]

sanctioning the start of our building the American Jewish community, when he wrote:

“The government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction,

to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection

should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Which is why no comment could be more “off” than decidedly good citizen

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio’s statement,

“This is not about religion; its about this particular mosque.”

Of course the question is about this particular mosque,

which is why it is ALL about religion!  Islam, to be exact…


“WHEN Americans are asked for a word that sums up Islam,

“fanatical, radical, violent and terrorism” spill from their collective imagination.”

[Pew Forum on Religion, Sept 25, 2007]

Yet, just a bit of basic Hebrew will get you from Shalom to its Arabic cognate, Salaam,

embedded in Is-Slam’s very name. Thus, to be part of this faith-tradition

is to be “one who submits to God,”  reinforced five times a day in prayer,

as the worshipper bows low, ideally at the mosque—in Arabic,

the Masjid—“the place of prostration.”

Of course, our nagging question remains—to what God does the Muslim bow down?

And here is where we get into trouble, for it all depends who you ask…

Over a billion people profess Islam as their religion,

around 1/5 of the world’s population [pg. 28].

And though we form our impression based on the conflict ridden countries of Iraq & Iran,

Only two of the ten largest Muslim populations come from the Middle East [Egypt, Iran].

Leading the list with almost 180 million Muslims,

Indonesia hardly registers on our religious radicals radar-screen.

In fact, The large majority of Muslims in Turkey, Nigeria, Lebanon, refuse to accept suicide bombings as a form of submission to Allah—for the Quran commands:

“Do not kill yourselves.”

Yet for the 70% of Muslims in Gaza who see martyrdom as sacred,

they simply point to “fight the unbeliever, slay him who is near to you,”

as living proof-text worth dying for.


Now you could counter by noting the ‘all-faiths cast of characters’ that appear in the Quran, from Adam to Jacob to David, Isaac & Ishmael, to Jesus, Joseph & Mary…

And, let’s not forget the father of Muslim faith—our guy, Abraham.

But the storylines are fundamentally altered…

Abraham, “a man of pure faith…will be among the righteous in the world to come.”

But he only gets in because he converts and becomes a true believer…of Allah.

Central as the path to Paradise is in Islam, how you journey makes all the difference,

As the Quran implores:

“to give of one’s substance to kinsmen, and orphans & beggars; to ransom the slave;

to perform prayer; to do righteous deeds…for them awaits the great triumph.”

Sounds almost Jewish!?…Till you throw in “Jihad”…?

For the Muslim, contrasting the spiritual inner struggle with the external fight for Islam’s faith, the question of Jihad underscores the challenge of its practitioners,

to resist those who take it to the extreme.

And it brings us back to our question: To build or not to build?

Which is actually the wrong question.

Let’s rather ask: What call does Allahu Akbar proclaim?

The answer: GOD—even Allah—is not one.

Painting a broad-strokes portrait of any religion creates an abstract

Where the face of faith is impossible to discern, and can easily be distorted..

Why do Sunnis decentralize religious authority, placing it in the hands of the Muslim community, while Shia hand over jurisdiction to the Imam…?

How could Bin Laden issue a fatwa—a legal ruling,

in ’96 & ’98, calling the presence of US military in the Arabian peninsula

“a declaration of war,” while Muslim clerics in Spain later [‘05] issued a fatwa condemning

“the terrorist acts of Osama Bin Laden [and Al Qaeda] as against Islam…” ?

Thus our informed response to the request [as if it is up to us to deny]

For those who’d build an Islamic Center in the neighborhood

Where the nightmare of 9-11 still looms dark,

Must be to acknowledge, Abdul Rauf, the Imam behind the center

Is not alone a long-time moderate Muslim voice but a bridge-builder.

His Sufi spirituality affirms all faiths as paths to the divine.

And rather than yearning for an otherworldly Paradise,

He perceives God’s Presence in the goodness we make real in the here & now.

The name chosen by the Immam, the Cordoba Center, leaves the question in our hands:

Will it be the place where Muslims—Jews & Christians not merely co-existed but shared the richness of their cultures and philosophies,

or the place where an Inquisition punished all people who did not share the chosen faith?

Guilt by association is a slippery slope.

…One of the eight Imams who just returned from a recent trip to Germany & Poland,

Yasir Qadhi, leader of a New Haven Islamic center,

Who himself years ago authored a book that stated,

“Hitler never intended to mass-destroy the Jews,”

Said just week before last: “One of the greatest lessons I learned at Auschwitz

Was the need for all of us to make sure that we never stereotype and dehumanize another group of people.”  [Jewish Week, Aug 27, 2010]

Of all places to discover that truth….. “Location, location, location.”


Question 2… WHO is a Jew…?

That query which has persisted for millennia as an open-ended debate

could have received an unfortunate answer: “almost no one.”

The Knesset bill, approved in committee, and slated to be brought to the floor for a vote,

was thankfully tabled, in no small measure, due to the political courage,

or perhaps savvy, of PM Netanyahu, who clearly saw the writing on the Diaspora wall.

Sponsored by the Russian-immigrant heavy, zealously nationalistic Yisrael Beiteinu Party,

The Conversion Bill, conceived by MK David Rotem, sought to deal with the dilemma of some 300,000+ former Soviet Union Olim, who serve in the army,

settling into life as loyal citizens of the Jewish State,

except for one small detail: they’re not Jewish—at least according to halacha.

As they, and more critically, their children marry Israeli Jews,

Unbeknown to them—they would be intermarrying!

This is all easy enough to remedy if you alter the way conversion happens in Israel.

But in attempting to solve the relatively micro-concern at hand,

The bill unleashed the macro-monster.

For while giving municipal rabbis a greater role, Rotem’s legislation grants ultimate control for all conversions to the Chief Orthodox Rabbinate.

Such a dangerous precedent—of an Israeli democracy placing its citizens’ status solely in the hands of the most fundamentalist-Haredi rabbis,

sets up not simply a potential Church-State showdown,

but an international—inter-denominational battle.

Netanyahu’s own words should be taken literally:

“This legislation could tear apart the Jewish people.”

When we met Knesset member David Rotem at Kol Ami in White Plains late in April,

7 Westchester Rabbis along with URJ Prog. Officer R’ Elliot Kleinman,

going around the table to introduce ourselves, I had no clue who I was talking to.

Sure, he was a judge who’d authored some meshuganneh bill,

ceding all responsibility for conversion to the Chief Rabbinate,

Not merely making non-orthodox in Israel now null & void,

But ostensibly invalidating prior conversion wherever they were performed.

This would transform the Law of Return—granting every Jew [by birth or by choice] full rights, into a Do Not Enter sign. [Jewish Week, July 23, 2010]

For if the zealously orthodox Chief Rabbinate determines WHO is a Jew,

If you’ve previously converted with a Reform or Conservative rabbi,

Or even most all Modern Orthodox, the answer will be “Not you!”

But Rotem had to understand the bill’s destructive impact.

Why else would he travel all this way to meet with us?

…After giving us his read on the legislation, he asked/demanded: “So, what do you want?”

Sitting next to me, Rick Jacobs [Rabbi at WRT] leaned forward:

“For the conversions, the weddings, the religious work of Reform & Masorti—Conservative rabbis to be respected and recognized as sacred in Israel.”

Rotem likewise leaned in, unapologetically squinting in reply: “In Israel, these are questions of halacha for the rabbinate to decide, so we both know—this is not very likely.”

Was he clueless as to the influence and impact of non-orthodox Diaspora Jewry?

What about the extensive support of UJA-Federation whose own families

could be cut off by such a law?

What became clear was that Rotem envisioned a different Jewish world,

One in which progressive Jews were hardly part of the picture…

Even more disconcerting, he could not comprehend our cause for alarm…

When Rabbi David Saperstein, head of our RAC—along with key movement leadership,

Went to meet with Knesset members in the week leading up to the vote,

it was not until the Rotem Bill was all but tabled that its author sought Saperstein out.

Beckoning the Reform Rabbi, known political activist to his table in the Knesset cafeteria, the two talked for an hour, Rotem offering to soften the statement a bit,

or change a word or phrase…But Saperstein came away acknowledging that the two of them

were speaking different languages, because their core question was not the same.

WHO is a Jew?  All depends who you ask…

What is certain, however, is that for centuries,

ever since Hillel offered to convert a heathen while he stood on one foot,

its been an open-ended question, as each historic Jewish community

applied the body of teaching and tradition to its own contextual time-setting.

Formalizing a central religious authority in Israel’s Chief Rabbinate today

would not alone close the gate on the large majority of converts, disenfranchising Diaspora Jewry,

but would silence the dialogue of the ages. For just this has always been the secret:

It is not so much the definitive answer at which we arrive,

but our asking the question, and the sincerity/integrity of our search that counts…

Our cacophony of covenant is the source of our survival.

For when it comes to living Torah, yesterday as today,

with divergent paths up that same sacred mountain, for Judaism—GOD is not always One.


I grew up with a split-level spiritual system, all in the same House of Worship.

I attended early morning minyan with my grandfather Solly, downstairs in the chapel;

a traditionally minded service using Birnbaum, the old conservative movement prayer book, and then at 8PM on Friday night, I’d sit in the pews of the sanctuary

as my mother sang in the semi-pro choir—hidden in the balcony above,

Using the Old Union Prayer Book, the classical Reform siddur you could hold in one hand.  I can still hear Rabbi Abraham Isaac Jacobson’s voice imparting liturgical instruction

as if from on high: “We rise as one in proclaiming the Watchword of our Faith…”

Rather than attribute this dual approach to a mixed message,

the fact that such diversity existed in the same Reform temple was fundamental…

How do I judge the vitality of our movement?

I see it affirmed every Thursday, as I head in to the city to teach the 5th year seniors at HUC,

and make it in just in time for the second half of morning services…

The sanctuary holds as diverse a spectrum as you could contain in a single shul.

A minyan or so students—men and women, are clad in tefillin and tallit gadol…

Some wear just kippah and tallit…Others a kippah alone…and plenty of people,

nothing at all…And beyond ritual garb, there’s the music.  One prayer the cantor

[a 2nd or 3rd year cantorial student] is singing a classical composer’s setting,

and the very next we get a Debbie Friedman or Craig Taubman tune

complete with drum, keyboard and clarinet…And the Rabbi’s sermon [a different 4th year rabbinic student each week] the past two: Last week—Embracing the Jewish entrepreneurial spirit,

This week’s—Getting back to our traditional roots.

Now you could see all of this as somewhat troubling.

If Reform Jews want to ensure their growth…and get their message out,

they’d better all get on the same page!

But for our intent and purpose as Jews, that would entirely miss the point…

This year marks a Bicentennial anniversary that help us appreciate

the indispensable vitality of why this diversity is Divine.

In Westphalia in 1810, as Israel Jacobson was setting up a Temple for his vocational school,

The first ever of its kind: with the bimah at the front and an organ at the side, with the rabbi in a clerical robe, with hymns and sermons in the vernacular and prayers pared down for public consumption, the thinker who’d give Reform its intellectual substance was also born.

Rabbi Abraham Geiger, framing Judaism as an ever-evolving faith,

set the tone for the spirit of Reform.

Geiger’s revolution, forged by Wissenchaft—the Scientific Study of Judaism,

called not only for critical study and examination, but the reformation of Jewish life

which would do away with outworn rites and rituals,  modalities and mindset,

enabling Judaism’s loftiest universal ideals to shine forth for all to see…

For Geiger, the pre-eminent model of Judaism’s historic purpose was born two millennia before him.  As he wrote:

“Hillel conveys to us the image of—and this term will not degrade but ennoble his memory,a true reformer.  Some may have asked him: “Why would you want to make changes?

How can you take upon yourself the right to make innovations?” Thus Hillel replies: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?…

Should recognition be accorded only to that which already exists?…”To which others may have countered:

“But why should you seek to make such changes for the entire community?”So Hillel would say, “As if the idea were not a living force which impels us to connect, for

if I am only for myself, what am I?  Is it not the entire community that seeks new Jewish life?”But they would say, “Leave these things alone, my friend; you are too rash.”

Still, Hillel would insist, “Every age must create and recreate. If not now, when?”  [Lectures, Breslau, 1864-1865]

So the seeds of Jewish reformation were sown in Germany and replanted in America

towards the end of the 19th century, only to sprout as Classical Reform.

The high-church German composers and hierarchical services

created a veritable Protestant-Jewish aesthetic. America was Reform’s new Zion.

But by the mid-late 30’s with Reform leaders calling their Jews

to make real their mission by living prophetic ethics,

the likes of rabbinic giants Abba Hillel Silver & Stephen S. Wise lead to a seismic shift,

as Reform Jews endorsed Zionism and Israel’s rebirth…

And with each new generation, even beyond the creation of new prayerbooks,

the struggle to answer a slightly different question: not WHO is a Jew but HOW [is a Jew]

has brought a continuous grappling with core issues of the day;

an increased quest for spiritual meaning, and a renewed consideration of tradition’s place.

So perpetual has the progression been

that Prof Michael Meyer, teacher of Jewish History at HUC in Cincy,

asked the obvious question.  [Forward.com, “For Reform, Change Is the Constant,” 7.16.10]

“What, then is the scarlet thread that binds Classical and contemporary Reform together?”

As if it is any surprise to us, he responded: “One can glimpse it in Geiger’s principle…

Change is endemic to our character and essential to our survival.”

If Reform Jews are so diverse—IF you can gain access through so many different doors,

what’s the constant that connects us?…

Change—the operative assumption that Judaism’s struggle

to make the world a bit more sane/sacred than we found it by employing the life-values and core teachings of our tradition means unending transformation—multiple voices with differing vision, all speaking at the very same time.

For when it comes to being Reform,

with an array of sometimes contrary ways to connect to covenant,

GOD is not [quite]One…

And thus, the take-home teaching we must make our daily lens on 21st life…

“Pretend pluralism” may be a noble intention,

yet it leads to a false premise and a very dangerous place.

Our highest hope—if we aspire to remake ourselves—and our world,

Is not simply to learn what our faith system teaches,

But to understand how & why the rituals & responses of other religions

are not at all the same.

As Prothero urges: [God Is Not One, pg 335]

“In relationships as in religions, denying differences is a recipe for disaster.  What works is understanding the differences and then coming to accept, or perhaps even revel in them…”

This New Year…

May the journey up that mountain help us to appreciate that there are multiple paths,

Age-old and well-tread, which lead to very different perspectives at the peak;

And may the discovery of such difference be not cause for alarm, Heaven help us,

But more often a call for humility,  moving us to acknowledge:

With no single vantage point the ultimate sacred vision

it is only by sharing faith-perspectives; by seeing within & beyond ourselves

that we might ever imagine God as [truly] One…

So someday, cherishing difference as Divine, May It Be…………………….AMEN