To Believe or not to Believe


         


 
 
 
 

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An Old, Foolish Argument

By Yechezkel Gold

Arguments about God and His ways are ancient. Even before people wished to build the tower of Babel and place an idol on top, and in the days of Enosh even before the flood, indeed, even Adam and Eve themselves resisted God. Clearly, this is possible because the world we live in, God's creation, renders argument possible. We cannot conclusively prove God's existence to everyone's satisfaction, either because of the limitations of the proofs or of the skeptics. It is more important to realize that the notion of having proof or not is beside the point when the topic is God.

Much in our experience challenges our faith. Believers understand this as free choice God gives us in order to make our lives meaningful or, alternatively, to test us. Scoffers dismiss the idea that God would hide himself in such a manner that makes His existence seem improbable to someone following what they consider to be normal, rational thought processes.

This essay will attempt to show that this ancient argument is foolish. The fact that the Torah is so opposed to idol worship and atheism (and by extension, agnosticism ) demonstrates that the Torah does not take the position of the scoffers seriously. This invites inquiry. If the matter can not be settled by logical discourse, why not look at atheism and agnosticism as simply an honest mistake?

The Torah regards this issue as more fundamental than intellect. Even when profound analysis and meditation are confounded by this question, God commands us to believe. Why?

Apparently the faith that the Torah expects from us is a choice to which the arguments mentioned above are not particularly relevant. To understand Torah's perspective, let us examine what is often considered the most fundamental statement of the Jewish religion, the Shema: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. The Torah commands us to say the Shema twice daily, during the time the people awake and the time that people go to sleep. In Jewish Law we are told to say this verse in three segments, separated by a brief pause: "Hear, O Israel", then "the Lord is our God", and then "the Lord is One". There are three basic components to this fundamental statement of our faith.

The verse begins with the words "Hear, O Israel" because the idea conveyed in this verse is addressed to the people of Israel, i.e. to the Jewish people. To hear does not mean sensory audition but rather to understand, to search inwardly and find, recognize and affirm the truth contained in this verse. This means that this fundamental faith is not based primarily on external considerations but rather on a reality found within the Jewish soul. This reality is a vital link between God and the world.

Thus, the words "Hear, O Israel" lead naturally to the second grouping of words in the verse: "the Lord is our God". The intention is not only to communicate to us that the Lord whose Name is used in the verse is really God. Rather, we should contemplate that He is our God, meaning that our access to that reality is through the Jewish soul. A spark of Godliness, of utmost sanctity and absolute importance containing the truth and purpose of all spiritual and physical dimensions of the universe, resides within the soul. God is the real reality and this fundamental commandment bids us to recognize and affirm this truth within ourselves.

The third grouping of words in the verse, "God is One" informs us far more than that there is only one God. It speaks of the basic oneness pervading the universe. This oneness exists on two levels. The harmonious workings of the world of nature reflecting the underlying unity of its laws, physical, chemical, biological, systemic, ecological, psychological, social, etc. are an expression of this underlying oneness. This oneness bespeaks a single Creator. A primary significance of the notion of God as Creator is to emphasize that physical reality is not the only dimension of existence, indeed, nor is it the most fundamental or important. The second level, a deeper, spiritual oneness, is found primarily in the souls of men. It is a sense of the spiritual oneness of all reality and is expressed as a sense of responsibility and care for all that exists.

This verse, while instructing us to recognize the first level of oneness, primarily is directing us to adopt an approach based on the second level of oneness. This is our ethical sense and it is meant to serve as the basis of our perspective and goals for life. Noticing the first level of oneness can help us to discern something of the directing force of the universe, but it is not essential to meditate on the oneness and harmony in nature in order to come to commit oneself to God. Indeed, we also notice disharmony throughout the universe. The real question is how this disharmony affects us. If we use it as an excuse to dismiss the primacy of God and banish our ethical sense, we have made an ethical choice. If instead the pain provoked by this disharmony brings us to commit ourselves to God and to the sense of underlying spiritual oneness issuing from the spark of Godliness residing within us, and to dedicate ourselves to improving man and his world, then we have complied with this basic Torah commandment.

The skeptic will claim that we have no proof of the truth and reality of God and ethical oneness. Very likely, this point of view is specious, and it is not our intention to deal with the logic and limitations of this perspective. More to the point, this claim of the skeptics is irrelevant. The question is not whether there is truly a reward, here or in the afterlife for good deeds. The question is whether or not the individual allies himself with God and dedicates himself/herself to living accordingly, to endeavor as much as possible to express the harmonious spiritual oneness residing in the soul and to change and improve the world. The skeptic claims that he/she cannot confirm the reality of the religious perspective and therefore rejects it. The religious person quite agrees that this indeed is what occurs inside the non-religious person's psyche, and finds this rejection to be distressing. These are the two possibilities. This is the reality, and clarifying it is the best argument - and plea - a religious person can make. Beyond this tends to drag us again into an old, foolish argument.

~~~~~~~

from the January 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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