Raised by a spellbinding orator whose wit, wisdom and insights filled the pews, I couldn’t wait for the Shabbat prayers to end, so I could get to la piece de resistance, my father’s sermon. Preceded by humor and inspiring stories to warm up the audience, my father would then deliver a powerful message which always included a call to action to love others and perform the greatest miracle of all; to change from the person we are today, to the person we could become tomorrow if we used the full potential within us. While I loved the sermon, the propitiations to a non-existent God left me cold.
Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, and raised Orthodox explained: "I grew up praying in the morning and laying tefillin. I gave up much of the formal aspect of religion. I don't think God wants compliments. God wants you to do something with your life and to help others."
What a shame that this celebrated actor and many other Jews abandon our heritage because Judaism seems unable to let go of its dad in the sky, the emotional security blanket people want to cling to when times get tough. Against all the evidence, they desperately hope and pray for a God to watch over them, care about them and dispense justice for them against their enemies, if not in this world, then in an imaginary world to come.
Though comforting to our ancestors, most Jews today attribute our blessings as well as life’s maladies, to natural causes rather than a petulant, “jealous” God of the Torah who zaps the unfaithful. Thus, millions of Jews have joined Kirk Douglas in leaving the synagogue, except perhaps for an annual pilgrimage on the High Holy Days out of respect for parents, grandparents or ancestors.
A growing number of our youth, representing the future of Judaism, describe themselves as cultural, ethnic, or spiritual, anything but “religious” Jews, and are voting with their feet by staying away. For them “religious” implies, mindless, stultifying devotion to defunct rituals and useless pleas to a non-existent God with an insatiable need to be praised and obeyed.
In his book, How To Enjoy This Moment, my father stressed that we must have an attitude of gratitude towards the gifts we have received, and noted that the word “Jewish” is derived from the Hebrew word for gratitude. While prayers to imaginary friends are useless, today’s scientists tell us that mindfulness, which leads to contemplation of our blessings, brings serenity, joy and wellbeing. Our sages asked in Pirkei Avot (wisdom of the fathers) “Who is happy?” and replied, “He who is content with his lot.”
My father taught that God does not appear in divine intervention into the natural order, but in the regular functioning of physical laws that govern the universe and make life possible. Similarly, Einstein asserted that science and the arts, help us glimpse a miraculous order, symmetry and subtlety in the cosmos, manifest in a blade of grass, a drop of water, the light of the sun and countless other wonders, which surround us every second and lead to “a cosmic religious experience” for those whose hearts, minds and eyes are open.
On Sukkot, Jews give thanks for the harvest, which inspired the founding fathers, who admired Jewish Scripture, to create an American version of this holiday, which they called Thanksgiving. The word “turkey” (derived from the Hebrew “tuki” meaning large bird), was coined by a Jewish linguist, who accompanied Columbus as translator.
Today, Jews can express thanks every day for the gifts we receive from parents, teachers, nurses, farmers and countless individuals whose toil makes life possible and worth living. Let us also give thanks for an evolving heritage in which each Jew contributes to the ongoing saga of our people and the insights of science can enhance and lend credence to our search for spirituality. Let us also rejoice on this Thanksgiving for this blessed land of freedom, loving companion animals and a universe in which humans evolved a mind that can contemplate and appreciate our blessings, if we choose to take time to do so. And let us show appreciation for this world by working with people of all religions, nations and political parties to protect our precious planet and to promote a more peaceful and environmentally sustainable world.