Astronomy led to Judaism

Rabbi Michael Samuel likes preaching on ethical monotheism

Rabbi Samuel: "If there is no afterlife, then we’ll never know the difference."
  • Rabbi Samuel: "If there is no afterlife, then we’ll never know the difference."

Temple Beth Sholom

208 Madrona Street, Chula Vista

Membership: 60

Rabbi: Michael Samuel

Age: 64

Born: San Francisco

Formation: Tomthei Temmimim, Israel; San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo

Years Ordained: 41

San Diego Reader: How long do you spend writing your sermon?

Rabbi Michael Samuel: I think about it all week and ask myself, “What is the message I want to get across?” Once I’m able to answer that, it will take me ten minutes to write it. The key to writing a good sermon is to have an idea you wish to communicate — a specific idea, moral, or concern.

SDR: What’s your favorite subject on which to preach?

RS: Ethical monotheism is important. It is a belief in God that inspires people to live a good, decent, and ethical life. Ethical monotheism creates a nexus between people and faith. With faith, it’s not enough to “believe” in God. You’re not doing God any favors. It’s more important to be living in God. It’s a pun — be-living instead of believing. They sound alike but they’re different: faith has to be totally engaging and help you want to make the world a better place.

SDR: Why did you become a rabbi?

RS: Many years ago, I knew I wanted to be a rabbi. I felt as if God spoke to me as a child through the marvels of nature, and astronomy in particular. That inspired me to pursue a path I’ve remained committed to ever since. The universe is a phenomenally expansive place, and that we’re able to understand a small part of it, and ask why we are here and how we got here, signifies a miracle that is on par with the Big Bang. The emergence of sentient, self-reflective life defies astronomical odds. That life should exist may not be a great miracle, but that life should be capable of understanding its origin and asking the great question “Why?” is at the heart of all faiths. That’s what inspired me as a teenager to become a rabbi.

SDR: Why Judaism?

RS: Judaism is a religion that appeals to reason, mindfulness, and how we conduct ourselves in this life. Judaism is not a closed religion; it does not look at the world and other religions in a negative way. Judaism is a beautiful, challenging, engaging religion that is always pushing me to be at my best.

SDR: What is the mission of your community?

RS: Our mission is to help Jews of any background to reconnect with their ancestral heritage. That is the mission statement of Temple Beth Shalom. We have classes and help people learn Hebrew, both biblical and modern conversational Hebrew. We also have classes which focus on Jewish philosophy and ethics, and we study the Bible every Saturday. I encourage my students to challenge the text. The best question is the question that makes you think.

SDR: Where do you go when you die?

RS: It’s better to live your life as if it has absolute meaning and purpose than to live a life that has no purpose. When I talk about the afterlife, that’s one approach I take. There’s another approach, too. The question of the afterlife is irrelevant. Why? If there is an afterlife, we’ll know about it soon enough; and if there is no afterlife, then we’ll never know the difference. Thus, Judaism is more a functional faith that is concerned with how you act. It keeps you directed toward the divine and transcendental while keeping your feet firmly planted in this world.

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