My Theology | Ralph |

My Theology


I have just celebrated my 86th birthday. I look back over an exciting life full of challenges and, God willing, I look forward to additional exciting and challenging years. I am proud of my professional achievements and will continue to contribute as long as I am able. It is remarkable to me, considering my attitudes as a youth, how my attachment to Judaism has grown. Whenever possible, I attend Sabbath and holiday services and occasionally daily services. I enjoyed my second Bar Mitzvah on my 83rd birthday. More important is my growing desire to understand my religion.


Mordecai Kaplan noted that there are three possible ways of identifying with Judaism, by belonging (calling oneself Jewish and perhaps belonging to a Congregation), behaving (following many or few mitzvahs), and believing (What is God? What is my relationship with God, etc?). Kaplan insisted in the primary role of belonging, stating that when that connection disappears, Judaism will disappear. Traditionalists believe what really matters is Behavior. The paucity of discussion of belief in our past literature is particularly striking. Each Jew makes decisions about belonging and behaving, often without conscious thought concerning believing.

How do I evaluate my experience relating to belonging, behaving, and believing? As a child I was exposed to the Conservative Jewish education of the 1940s which I did not find overwhelming. What was overwhelming was my grandfather, Emil Graff, who moved in my family’s home when my grandmother died when I was 10 years old. Based on his desire to belong (founding member of Brith Sholom Congregation) and behave (regular Synagogue attendance while he was physically able, maintenance of his own kosher kitchen in our non-kosher house), I made the choice that I would belong and my children would be Jewish. I must admit that my Jewish behavior as a youth was minimal and I gave very little thought to my beliefs. With the death of my grandfather and my parents, I became aware of my responsibility as patriarch of my family, particularly my religious responsibility. My personal observance increased as did my participation in synagogue activities. In my progression through synagogue positions, I periodically gave speeches. As I re-read the texts, it is notable to me that my beliefs showed no growth beyond those of my childhood. My religious belief evolution was initiated by a conversation with David Yaffee, my son-in-law Brian’s father. I was disturbed by portions of the TANAKH, such as Samuel transmitting God’s instruction to King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites. David referred me to Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible” and sent me the reading list from his Synagogue’s Book Club. A Book club was initiated at BSKI. It was through the associated readings coupled with my scientific background that my current beliefs developed.


What is God and what is God not? Maimonides felt strongly that God is not human and expressed disdain for attributing human characteristics to God such as anger, disappointment, etc. Spinoza, whose biblical criticism in the mid-1600s resulted in his permanent excommunication, believed in the concept pantheism, that God and the Universe are one and the same.

Is there a Deity that initiated the Universe and controls what happens (theism), initiated the Universe and does not control what is happening (deism), or there is no Deity? If God is controlling the Universe, why do bad things happen to good people? If God is not controlling the Universe, why do we pray? Did God cause a flood in Noah’s day and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of evil behavior or were they natural disasters not related to human behavior?

Does God communicate with us? Can we actually experience God? Abraham Joshua Heschel used the Prophets’ experience with God as an example of God’s communication with man. To the question, did they really communicate with God? Heschel responded “Why is it that a group of men claimed to be conveying the word of God? In fact, most of them bitterly resented their calling. …Yet they were compelled to speak by a force that was infinitely more powerful that their will.” The concept of existentialism, the personalization of religion, had its appearance in Judaism around 1900 in the writing of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig who postulated that one obeys a mitzvah, not because he or she is so ordered, but because of a personal connection to that mitzvah. The basis of experientialism and existentialism is that God communicates with each of us in some way. Maimonides insisted that when the Bible speaks of man being created in God’s image, it is referring to our faculty of reason. Is it through man’s ability to reason that God communicates with us?

Can scientific and religious beliefs be compatible? Our knowledge of the physical and biologic aspects of the universe is increasing exponentially. The works of Copernicus and Darwin required rethinking the centrality of the earth and the creation of the world in seven days as described in the Torah. Astrophysical knowledge leaves no doubt that the earth revolves around the sun. Templeton offers scientific evidence for evolution using viral evolution occurring in months and years that would take many millennia to occur in man. Our knowledge of what makes us what we are is constantly expanding. Our belief that we are what our genes instructs us to be has been augmented with the importance of the juxtaposition of genes (the epigenome) the selective transcription of genes into RNA (the transcriptome), the assembling of peptides into proteins (the proteome) and assembling of proteins in the individual (the phenome). Wow, how intelligently is our world designed?

Is the Torah a God-given document, a God inspired document recorded by man, or a group of stories written by our ancestors? By whom and when was the written Torah transcribed? Discussions of this question, which have been held by biblical critics for centuries, reached a new level in the early 1900s with the writings of Graf and Wellhausen, but it was the work of Richard Elliot Freidman in the late 20th century that brought biblical criticism to the general Jewish public. Friedman summarizes convincing evidence that the Torah was transcribed long after Moses, the oldest portions during the period of the divided Kingdoms. If one accepts this position, it is of critical importance what one considers God’s role in the written product.

What is the relationship between body, soul, and afterlife? Stated in another way, does any part of the individual exist after death? Is there an afterlife, reincarnation? The concept of afterlife does not appear until late in the Tanakh. In the early 1600s, Descartes expressed the belief that the soul was separate from body and was immortal. Spinoza disagreed, proposing no part of the body survived death.


The above-described literature has played an important part in the development of my beliefs. What is God? What is my relationship with God? Clearly, a power created the universe. Both atheistic and God-believing scientists can accept that statement. They differ only in what they call the power, the former rejecting and the latter embracing the word God. It suits my need to call that power God. I believe, in agreement with Spinoza’s pantheism (God and the Universe is one and the same), that in the creation of the universe, every individual received a piece of the Creator. I believe that my relationship with God is derived from being a part of that creation. As a part of the Whole, I have a responsibility to the Whole whether it is called God or the big bang.

What is The Role of God in Today’s World and in each of our lives? Is God controlling the world in an ongoing fashion (Theism) or is God only observing the effects of a master plan (Deism)? Until recently, I unhappily considered myself a Deist. How sad that God plays no role in our destiny. In the process of organizing my thoughts, I came upon a third position: the master plan is altered (for better or for worse) by that portion of God existing in each person. Thus, the negative effect of chance change such as drought could be alleviated by man maintaining storehouses of food, of a flood by building an Ark, or at a more personal level, medical achievements could alter the negative effects of disease. In this manner that piece of God in each of us would be controlling ongoing events. My life choices encourage me to believe the third option. How does God communicate with me? How do I relate to God? How do I relate to ritual/prayer? If the human brain is the current apex of God’s master plan, it is logical that God communicates with us through our brain. Some use this unique organ for the betterment of the world, others use it for self-aggrandizement. God said to Pharaoh, Let my people go so that they may serve me. I believe that the Jews by birth and Jews by choice have an abundance of the makeup to serve God (or the Universe). This in itself is a reason for me to want to belong. I serve God’s world by contributing to its betterment. I have received gifts. I show appreciation by using those gifts to the best of my ability. What is the role of ritual and prayer in my life? I believe it is appropriate to pray for the ability to use my God-given assets to the best of my ability. Such a prayer is actually a prayer to myself. Religious observance attaches me to my Jewish heritage.
Can my scientific and religious beliefs be compatible? The Talmud describes the Torah as the master plan for the creation of the world, created before the world. I choose to believe that master plan created the mechanism and basic elements from which everything would be assembled. The most basic sub atomic particles, identical in all of the parts of the Universe, were assembled into different elements (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, etc). Chance combinations of these elements produced molecules, some (called genes) having the ability to reproduce themselves. The coming together of genes with various other molecules created structures called cells capable of reproducing themselves. Chance modification of cellular genes resulted in cells that remained together. Various members of the conglomerate, by genetic changes, became able to carry out specialized functions, resulted in complex organisms. It is not hard to imagine this master plan producing today’s world, the apex of this process is the development of the human brain, the most unique of organs. As noted, it is with the brain that we may communicate with God.

The intent of the master plan is, through the use of chance change (Mendel) and survival of the fittest (Darwin), to produce a better and better world. Chance changes are not all beneficial (perhaps they are the first cousins of man’s free will, which also does not always produce good results). The fallibility of this system is noted in Ecclesiastics Rabbah, which describes the failure of multiple worlds before ours suggesting that if man is negligent, he can destroy this world What is God’s contribution to our religious literature? Each author in Jewish literature uses his or her God-given gifts in writing. Therefore, everything written is God-inspired, but not of equal quality. The more a document is criticized by intelligent people, the better is should become. This explanation will not satisfy those who believe that the Torah as originally written, is perfect, but if one believes in the above-described hypothesis, we can accept modification of the Torah in particular and religious literature in general.

What is the soul and afterlife and how do they affect how I live this life? The concept of the afterlife gives us hope for happiness in the next world. These beliefs become destructive if they detract from our responsibilities in this life. If there is an afterlife I will consider it a bonus. To me, heaven or hell will be how I feel about how I have used my God-given gifts at the moment of death.

Our gifts differ, not only from person to person, but also from time to time. It seems proper that each of us should be competing with ourselves rather than taking satisfaction from out-performing someone with lesser gifts or feeling defeated because we cannot perform at the level of one with greater gifts. Religion should help each of us deal with not only the hand we were originally dealt, but also the hands we continue to receive. It is OK to change our minds as to what we believe. Conclusion. Nine years ago, my wife and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. Our grandchildren put on a skit in which I was portrayed as repeatedly saying “I have been truly blessed”. In fact, I have been truly blessed. I have been blessed by the wonderful gifts that God has given me. I have been blessed by the environment that my parents, my wife, and now my children and grandchildren have created for me. It is important to me that I give at least as much as I have received, professionally and personally, to God’s world in general and to my family in particular. The true incentive for my creating this document is to offer my thoughts to my grandchildren, and perhaps to subsequent generations.

As the grandson of Emil Graff, I feel a commitment to Judaism. I would hope that in the future, members of Emil Graff’s family will continue to be Jewish. My grandfather Abraham Patt grew up in Bialystok Poland and was a graduate of Slobatka Yeshiva. I was told that as an adult he walked away from Judaism because organized religion did not meet his needs. My wife could tell the same story about her Grandfather, Isaac Rotman, a Yeshiva student who grew up in Lodtz Poland. I believe that it is critically important, as proposed by Mordechai Kaplan, that today’s organized religion fills the needs of its constituency. It is critical that I, as one who has chosen to belong to Judaism, do my part to help Judaism fulfill that role.

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