It’s not news that there are Jews who don’t believe in God. Not long ago an eminent Israeli who calls himself an atheist won court approval to register himself as having no religion. I once publicly debated with a leading Australian humanist the issue of whether one can be a Jew and an atheist at the same time. I took it as a compliment that shortly afterwards my antagonist attended a Shavu’ot service at my synagogue and when I asked him, “Did you enjoy the sermon?”, he said, “Thank God!”
A well known American Jewish clergyman, the late Sherwin Wine, was known as the rabbi of the atheists. He did not claim to be an atheist himself but preferred to say he was just not sure. I wonder what his view was about life after death. Of course religious believers are certain that the soul lives on in the presence of God, but Wine could hardly have been comfortable with that tenet since God is integral to it.
Presumably he believed that there was only one life, this one on earth, and when that life comes to an end, that is the end of the story. If I am right, none of us will be able to search for Wine in Olam HaBa to ascertain whether his views have changed.
There are people alive in this world – possibly even a rabbi or two – who are also not sure about God, but we have no statistics to go by. Not that statistics are so important. People’s thinking never stands still, and I often notice with wry amusement how many are ready to give God the benefit of the doubt by the time they die. In any case, as Rav Kook remarked, the fact that so many are obsessed with God and whether they believe in Him, is probably a good sign. They simply wouldn’t bother if they lacked a glimmer of a thought that maybe the Almighty does exist after all.
Many Jews refuse to believe in God because they are angry with Him, mostly because of the Holocaust. Yet if there is no God, who is there to be angry with? From Abraham’s time onwards, Jews have confronted God, accused Him, shouted at Him, and echoed the folk saying, “If God lived in my village, I would break all His windows”.
A few years ago I was guest speaker at an Australian navy chaplains’ conference. A conference session dealt with counselling military personnel in time of crisis. After my speech one of the chaplains asked, “There are times when it’s hard to fathom how God runs the world, but out of respect we hold back and dare not yell at Him. What do you Jews think – is someone allowed to shout at God?” I told him – to his surprise – that Jewish history and literature are full of confrontations with the Almighty.
The phrase the Talmud uses when it ponders martyrdom is, Zo Torah, v’zu secharah – “Is this religion, and is this its reward?” In some passages God replies, “Silence! This is My decree!” In the Yom Kippur liturgy, He retorts, “Silence, or I will turn the world back to water!” When Job tries to take God to court, he gets a tongue-lashing for his efforts.
But I wonder whether the Almighty would be so high and mighty with our generation. Surely we have suffered too much for Him to give us a piece of His mind. He is more likely to say with the Bible, Yadati b’ni yadati – “I know, My child, I know…” He must see that we have problems with Him, but without Him we are bereft, abandoned, lost in a cold, unfeeling world, which is the thesis of Richard Rubenstein.
I don’t know what Wine did with his anger. It is said he had deleted God from his prayer book, removed the Ark from his synagogue and relegated the Torah scroll to an archive. I suppose he made man the measure of all things: “Blessed art thou, O man!” How he coped intellectually and ethically I can’t imagine, since man, freed from God, has such a poor record of moral management.
I assume that Wine gave lessons in Jewish history. I would like to know how he coped if he could not acknowledge God as the central character in the Jewish story, if he could not see that Jewish history mirrors the ups and downs of the Divine-human encounter.
And what did he do with the universal human feeling that there are realms above and beyond the earthbound and the human? How did he handle life’s mystery and mystique, its sense of the transcendent and spiritual?
If his answer was a mere abdication, “I don’t know; I state no view”, how could he call himself a leader, a teacher, a guide?
If he said, “I leave it to you to find your own answers”, isn’t this tantamount to making himself redundant? Rabbis are allowed and encouraged to argue – the Talmudic tradition is full of argument and counter-argument – but they have no right to opt out.
Any individual can try to live without God, but Judaism as a whole can’t. Nor can a rabbi; he must be answerable to Someone.
The “Washington Post” did us a service in opening up the subject. It is a problem because Jewish identity is highly complex. In “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye can assert that everything is ruled down by tradition, but that’s far too easy. From the time we entered European civilisation we began trying to eliminate God from Judaism and still be Jewish. There were 19th century movements that tried to eliminate religion on the one hand and ethnicity on the other. A definitive answer still eludes us.
We are not an ethnic group like the Chinese or a religious denomination like the Methodists. We are what Eugene Borowitz called an intimate fusion of many elements. Mordecai Kaplan spoke of Judaism as a civilisation. As with so many other things, history must be the arbiter. Historically religion and peoplehood went together in Judaism, with religion as the most distinctive dimension of the combination. Does this mean that one can be Jewish without the Almighty? The sociological answer appears to be yes. But if Judaism is our people’s ideology, there can be no Jewish ideology without Him. As the Chassidic “Dudele” puts it, wherever you turn, there is God.
Some so-called atheists might find comfort in the words which the rabbis put into the mouth of God, “Let them leave Me – and keep My commandments”, which seems to imply, “You can live as a Jew without mentioning Me”. But if you live as a Jew, how can you not mention God?
This article first appeared in the “Torah Tidbits” publication issued by the Orthodox Union Israel Office, Parashat B’chukkotai, 19-20 May 2012.