The God Problem
By Joe Postove
When I accepted my sisters offer to move to Israel (she had implored me many times) I thought less that I was going there to achieve a higher level of Jewish life, rather than an escape from a dead end life in the United States. I was however, as an amateur philosopher, intrigued by the scholasticism I would find here with Judaism as a branch of philosophy. However, I would discover that observant Jews consider philosophy as a branch of Judaism.
For me it started with Aristotle, and then when I chanced upon the writing of Ayn Rand and similar other truth seekers, I built for myself, brick by brick, a belief system that in part was questioning of things religious and based on faith. Reason became my only way of understanding the world, and also my only absolute. With one exception.
Knowing that I would be thought heretical by some, I believed that the brand of Orthodox Judaism I would be encountering would embrace me and my questions in the spirit of learning that is truly essential to Judaism. I was right. And I was wrong.
Over the course of the last year as I waited for my citizenship papers to be processed and I would become an Israeli national, I spent many satisfying hours at Shabbos’ tables in discussion on the nature of God, his creation, and how one can try to understand him. I am a believer in God; I do not know that he exists. My belief is more my need for an ultimate being to receive succor from than any pseudo-sophisticated science that the God who is said to have delivered the law from Mount Sinai in front of 600,000 people is our one Lord. I ask questions. I have never, however, asked for proof of God. I have all I need, faith. It is my one exception to a life of reason. The non-believers (“the Knowers”), perhaps, do not have the faith required for God to be in their lives. Many Orthodox Jews profoundly and sincerely base their religion on the supposed unveiling of the Torah to Moses in front of the nation of Israel. Back then to reason. If you want me to understand the most important thing in the universe and you feel I need proof, I need more than what I see as a folk tale. The Torah is said to be about thirty three hundred years old. If it is proof I am to have, one must rely on a high standard of history to offer something that ancient as attestation.
I was surprised and gratified that for the most part I was not put down or demeaned for my beliefs. I was lucky to find many men and women that would engage me in friendly swordsmanship. I found Israel to be a goldmine of thinking. That I disagreed with so much of it made it all the more exciting. This is Judaism, I thought; men and women sitting around a table on God’s holiest day, the Sabbath, and discussing the very meaning of his place in our lives; or even if there was one.
Being a believer and not a knower, I would often postulate on these Friday nights and Saturday afternoons that God created the world and then took a walk. That he had no need or reason to be a part of our everyday lives because he endowed us with his greatest gift, our mind. I was a Deist in my heart in so far that belief in reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a creator, accompanied with the rejection of revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge. But I needed faith for a personal relationship with God.
Conversation with fellow Jews was a joy, in that I was not shot down for my beliefs and that even though disagreement was the intercourse of our peeling back the apple of knowledge, we were all Jews and dissimilarity in consideration of the God problem was an exercise of the minds that he gave us.
I ran into Halakha; Jewish law that many do not question. A more literal translation might be the path that one walks. At the heart of halakhah is the unchangeable 613 mitzvot. These are positive and negative commandants and duties that Orthodox Jews observe devoutly whether or not one understands them. Many of these 613 mitzvot nonetheless cannot be observed at this time for various reasons. For example, a large portion of the laws relate to sacrifices and offerings, which can only be made in the Temple, and the Temple does not exist today. Some of the laws relate to the theocracy of Israel, its government, and its system of laws, and cannot be observed because the religious state does not exist (Israel’s government is largely secular). In addition, some laws do not apply to all people or places. Most agricultural laws only apply within the Land of Israel, and certain laws only apply to the Priestly caste or those descended from Jacob's son Levi or the Levites.
I was troubled by this very Jewish conception of religion. My belief in God means to me that He would not ask anything of me that I do not understand. What is the point of our minds if we are to simply hand them over to rabbis and other authorities to interpret God for us; or to simply not use them at all? For me, it was religion getting in the way, effectually blocking a true father and child relationship. How could I accept anything that I could not at least attempt to understand? I was told that part of God’s contract with my people was that we would do anything asked of us, understood or not. I could not accept this. And yet, for the most part, while I received virulent argumentation on the point, we would part as brothers under the same skin. Until one recent Sabbath afternoon.
I was invited into a house where I had supped and discussed the God problem many times; always with vigor, but never with mean spiritedness or lack of respect from either side. On this day, the men and women at the table were discussing the nature and essence of creation and I was having a great time trying to make and understand fine points that I would usually only find among libertarians or atheists. There were also two seventeen year old boys at the table, not engaging but listening delightedly at the grownups search for answers.
I asked my host if it mattered if the universe existed before God created the Earth. I was met with a response that can only be described as scary as the supposed fear the Israelite’s had at the sound of God’s voice on the foot of Mount Sinai. I was told that the rabbis had closed the book on this question and there was never, ever, any point to it being asked. In addition I was condemned for exposing young seventeen year old ears to what amounted to blasphemy. My host, who for many Sabbath’s had parried my impertinent questions quite well, now was shouting me down. The best I could do was apologize for not realizing that this particular point was not allowed in his house, and crawl into my deist hole.
I have taken Sabbath meals with him since, and tonight he informed me that he was only trying to protect the ears of his teenage sons who are in their formative years, and should not be exposed to such challenges. I thought God was the greatest of our challenges, and politely informed him that since my perspective was so different from his, it would be a good idea for me to recuse myself from future such discussions.
There are lots of other of my fellow Jews to cross swords with, and I will. But I will miss the scholastic adventures at this table. You can imagine my disappointment.
from the June 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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