Why Judaism?, part שני
On the question of God in modernity
The heavens declare the glory of God,
the sky proclaims His handiwork.
(Epitaph on Wernher von Braun’s grave.)
My religious cri de coeur, ‘Why Judaism? On abandoning secular modernity,’ did rather well last week. I received many DMs of support from Jews, one anti-Semitic piece of hate mail (I think that’s on the conversion checklist), and some ribbing from proud secular liberals who felt their worldview axiomatically cannot be opted out of.
One issue I did not address, but which I often get asked as the second question after ‘Conversion? WTF?’ is ‘Do you believe in God?’
Here on the pixelated pages of The Pull Request we will finally provide an answer to this timeless riddle.
First, an aside
As everyone who reads Pull Request knows, I (and others) have gone mad with the idea that Christianity is so intellectually fundamental to the Western worldview, even secular people have trouble escaping its assumption (here’s an interview with the pope of post-Christian secularism, Tom Holland).
As an example of this, consider how the word ‘faith’ is used almost synonymously with ‘religion’ in the English-speaking world. But faith, as it’s being referenced here, is a strong component of only certain flavors of religion. Or even certain sub-flavors of certain religions. The strong faith relationship with Jesus—Jesus died for my sins! Jesus saved me!—is a very particular type of religion; if you take that as the general experience of Christianity, never mind religion as a whole, you’re either accidentally (or willfully) mischaracterizing the human experience of religion more broadly. I think I can count with the fingers of one hand the number of times the word ‘faith’ was used in the year-long Jewish conversion course I took which involved hours upon hours of hermeneutical debate of cryptic texts. The personal experience of God wasn’t even a footnote, much less relationships with his prophets or intercessors.
Even Islam, which reveres Mohammed as humanity’s great prophet, does not think him divine as (most) Christians do Jesus. In Christianity, God has assumed human form, and that emanation of the divine can have personal relationships with his adepts. Even non-Christians understand this, so when I’m asked “Do you believe in God?” the implicit question question is ‘Do you feel this magic man is part of your life and do you talk to him?’
I just got here to Judaism, so to speak, so I feel a little uneasy generalizing my limited view for a general audience (though suddenly having pugnacious opinions about Judaism might be a mark of my final conversion). But that is, ahem, not exactly how Jews think about God and their relationship with that entity, whatever its nature and whether it exists at all (and some Jews think it does not). I can’t be expected to disabuse readers of their conception of the divine, particularly one fed to them at an impressionable age by the seductive likes of 80s and 90s-era televangelists, in a few paltry paragraphs. But hopefully this disclaimer gets us past some of the theological chitchat that precedes this question in 21st-century America.
I find it intriguing that the most pro-science people take a very empirical “Let’s find God in the world” tack when discussing the issue of his existence. If God were to exist in our physical universe where the Plank Constant is just right to support the life-filled planet we see, it would be at an abstract level of an as-yet undiscovered particle or field or something else altogether. To this experimental physics PhD dropout, the question seems less Why don’t we detect God? and more one of How could we ever possibly detect such a thing with such relatively rudimentary experimental science as we have?
I hate the term ‘agnostic,’ as it seems a kind of half-assed skepticism that doesn’t want to go all the way to nihilist atheism. My position is more of a I don’t think the question is even answerable, so why bother asking?
Asking me to find traces of God’s existence would be like asking me to prove that there’s not a single live chicken in the entire Empire State Building. This would be nigh impossible, as I’d have to monitor every corner of an immense edifice at once to really definitively say. So I’m just not going to have opinions on whether chickens exist there or not.
The counter-argument to that of course is: Well, negatives are hard to prove, while positives are easy (i.e., I only have to find one counter-example of a chicken on the 92nd floor bathroom). Why should I have to prove a negative about God? It’s you who has to prove Empire State Building chickens aren’t a patent absurdity.
Which really means the question devolves to, who has the burden of proof here? The religious in a universe we assume to be godless, or the atheists in a world we assume has some something driving this order-out-of-chaos we see? We observe seeming miracles like babies self-organizing out of cells, seeds growing into enormous redwoods, the very universe itself existing; which side has a case to make?
Other than creationist nitwits, not many cases are made for the existence of God these days. The bookish religions like Catholicism and Judaism have ceded the material realm to science centuries ago (despite claims to the contrary); they’re happy to live in a purely metaphysical realm, and their claims now live there alone. The case against God typically varies according to the God in question; we put the Big Guy on trial according to whatever his divine rap sheet says.
Consider the common atheist attack of theodicy, or the problem of evil, i.e., why do bad things happen to good people? While evil in the world is something that every religion takes on in some form or another, it’s a much tougher nut to crack when you believe ‘God is love’, as recounted in the Gospel of John. If God is love, why do we have pediatric cancer wards in hospitals, where innocents die tragic and horrible deaths? Why did Kevin Cosgrove, by all accounts a loving family man, die in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11, screaming out ‘Oh God!’ into the phone as the building collapsed around him? You could of course cite countless other examples of innocence cruelly punished and persecuted.
From my reading of the Hebrew bible, the Jewish notion of God is something other than pure, unadulterated love. But to prove Godwin right yet again, let’s take the Jewish spin on this question: Where was God at Auschwitz? Pretty absent, from the looks. But he was also pretty absent in other bloody episodes in Jewish history, like the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans and the destruction of the Second Temple, which involved enormous amounts of slaughter and destruction and set the Jews on 2,000 years of exile. God abandoning his chosen people (usually preceded by the reverse) is a running motif of the entire Hebrew bible; the Holocaust is a barbaric tragedy that defies understanding, but it’s not the first time the Jews found themselves abandoned to a horrifying fate.
Christianity however is about happy endings; it’s about the happiest ending of all, which is the coming of Christ the Messiah and the Kingdom of God, either in this life or the next.1 Christians believe God walked on the Earth in the form of a historical Jesus during a time about which we have much recorded history and archaeological remains. Many churches in Europe even claim to have artifacts of his divine existence, in the form of wood from the Cross or vials of his blood. In a religion where the central rite of the Catholic eucharist involves drinking Christ’s blood and eating of his body right here on Earth, how indeed do we have kids dying of brain tumors?
Which is a long way of saying, while theodicy remains a massive problem in Christianity (and one of its great critiques), this might be less of an issue in other religions where the divine is not expected to provide us happy endings in life. A religion where the focus is instead on avoiding sad endings by holding up our end of a covenantal bargain that was struck 3,000+ years ago on Mount Sinai (if you’re the sort of Jew who believes it happened, and some do not). A religion where we are enjoined to ‘remember Amalek!’ and guard against the great enemy of our people and defend against their murderous aggressions.2
In that view, any justice or peace in this world will be rendered by us, not Jesus or God’s direct divine presence on Earth. To the extent God’s divine will is expressed on Earth, it’s through human action in this world; the messiah seems to be taking his sweet time. Which is why, to suddenly cite a very contemporary example, we must cyber-attack the Iranian nuclear reactors to thwart Amalek and another genocidal Persian plot yet again.3
While messianism of course exists inside the Jewish tradition, by and large God is not bringing rainbows and unicorns and world peace any day now. Rather, the big ‘He’ is a distant abstraction that’s a counterparty to a pretty spare set of moral axioms that we humans are bad at following. Like some landlord who gets snippy about a tenant’s maintenance request when that tenant is behind on rent, the Jewish God is rather more aloof, judgy, and mercurial. God’s wrath in the Bible is often a stand-in for the fate of the Jewish people itself, much as Americans bemoan the sad state of their politics due to our abandonment of our covenantal deal. By my lights, the theodicy problem is a bit less damning of God in Judaism than it is in Christianity.
All that said, let’s consider the theodicy problem anyhow, as a particular case of a more general “Does God exist and intervene in the world of humanity?” question, which I do think is a good one even outside a Christian context.
The only solutions to the theodicy problem seem to be threefold:
Either we relinquish the (anthropocentric) notion that the universe will naturally tend toward justice and human flourishing, and that God acts to punish the evil and reward the good. In other words, while there may yet be some pervasive life-giving force that animates the wondrous complexity of life we see around us, balancing the moral books inside the world of Homo sapiens sapiens may not be as big a priority as we selfishly think. Whatever cosmic forces conspired to give us the periodic table of elements and French bulldogs and Fermi-Dirac statistics doesn’t directly care about human well-being (at least no more than it does any other species). There is some driving logic and force to the universe, but we’re not the headline item we’d like to think; a just human world is in our hands, not God’s.
Or, we take the simply incomprehensible human suffering involved in something like the Holocaust and amortize it out through the centuries and try to give it some logic; this terrible thing X happened but good thing Y happened after, so it’s all part of God’s long game. I find this a perverse utilitarianism, and a little bit too ‘just so’ to pass serious intellectual muster.
Or, we take the out provided by the Anthropic principle, which says that we’re asking questions about whether there’s God in a universe because we happen to inhabit one with physical laws that allow life to evolve and ask that big question. We can posit there’s some driving force that created life and that reverses entropy into order for seemingly fluke-y reasons (while still respecting thermodynamics of course), but we also might be deluding ourselves.
We can even choose to call that thing ‘God’ or ‘Hashem’ or ‘Cthulhu’ or whatever we like, but whatever that it is, we should consider ourselves like lottery winners lucky to have won a universe we can puzzle over. To give it much more purpose than that is an enormous error of sample bias: We’re not considering all the universes and times with different non-life-creating assumptions and physical constants, because they never produced the human life that asks these questions on Substack.
My intuitive take on all this is that if there is a God operating in the physical universe we see, it must be such a transcendent force so beyond our limited human experience, we’d never be able to ‘prove’ anything about it … at least not for a very, very long time of mental, technical and cultural evolution. All of our ancestors were banging rocks together on open plains as hunter-gatherer bands not more than a few thousand years ago. To quote Vonnegut: “Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.”
Ultimately, God is no more true or false than ‘democracy’ or FICO scores or oil futures, and look how many humans run around like agitated ants because of those concepts. Intangible things become real when enough humans act like they’re real.
As a thought experiment here, consider the humble nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, which is a much-studied model organism in biology. The nervous system of C. elegans has been completely mapped down to the individual neuron, as has its genome. Does our friend the nematode ask itself whether humans exist, and just how is it that their entire nematode universe is constantly being rocked by these enormous, divine-seeming beings?
We’d be about as likely to understand whatever God-like thing might exist as that nematode is to understanding us or the Electoral College, which is not at all. The gap in mental ability between C. elegans and us, as great as it might seem, is surely less than the gap between us and whatever God-like thing is out there driving all this, whether that’s some novel uber-particle, a hyper-advanced alien species, or whatever else. We’d no more be able to make sense of ‘God’ than the nematode will figure out the human culture that resulted in his species being used for genetics experiments in research labs. Both gaps, the real worm/human one and this hypothetical human/God one, are just too immense to be bridged by the inferior species in question.
To be absolutely clear, I salute the human urge to explore and explain the universe, and think we should be doing more of it; our curious, meddlesome species should poke and pry the ends of the earth and the solar system and beyond. But I find it more than a little cheeky when a species of hairless apes that figured out antibiotics and genes and the full implications of relativity only a few decades ago suddenly declares “Yup, we know everything about the origins of this immense universe, despite barely having stepped foot off our rock.” And by the way, in addition to claiming to have figured out the intricate clockwork of the universe with our big brains, our brilliant species still flips out like chimpanzees over optical illusions such as the ones my five-year-old loves. I think we’re a little high on our own supply here; a certain amount of epistemic humility and understanding of just how little we understand should push us toward less dispositive conclusions about the true nature of the universe.
The truly materialist anti-anthropocentric view here would be skeptical of the reasoning abilities of a species whose major issue right now seems to be its addiction to the blinking lights of a thing called Facebook. To discard any notion of God in the universe, you have to enthrone humans and their grand intelligence in that role instead, and I think the throne is a bit too big for us at the moment.
Sure, the ‘man in the sky’ vision of God is silly, and no doubt some credulous believers have that conception in their heads, but it’s a lame atheist counter-argument when you attack only the weakest versions of your opponent’s arguments. It’s a rather different matter to take on (say) physicist Paul Davies and his various ruminations on how the universe is arranged such that we can even sit around and ask these questions (just to cite one example of science-inspired metaphysical speculation). ‘The man in the sky’ is easy to debunk; why the fine-structure constant is 1/137, just the right value to make physics and biology work, is a harder nut to crack.
Ultimately, at our level of technology, God is no more true or false than ‘democracy’ or FICO scores or oil futures, and look how many humans run around like agitated ants because of those concepts. Intangible things become real when enough humans act like they’re real. In our species’ feverish drive to imbue symbols of our own devising with as much reality as a pouncing tiger (and often generating as much emotion), asking if those abstractions really ‘exist’ amounts to little more than philosophical repartee.
I’ll (once again) draw on a hopefully illuminating example from the Jewish world:
Judaism has had two temples, the first a somewhat legendary one involving David and Solomon, and a more recent one of very historical reality which the Romans destroyed in 70 AD (you can see the violent shenanigans in the Arch of Titus in Rome to this day).
At the center of the Second Temple was the so-called Holy of Holies, the holiest site of Judaism even now (though where it sits on the Temple Mount is still debated). That space, toward which every Jew then and now prays … was empty. The Ark of the Covenant of Indiana Jones fame (which stood in the First Temple) had long ago been lost during the Babylonian exile. The sanctuary had a bare dais, a sort of negative-space symbol for the ark, and not much else.
Witnessing someone who lives in our smartphone era—LinkedIn profile, mortgage, Amazon Prime membership, the full catastrophe—pressing their heads to the pavement in the direction of Jerusalem’s Holy of Holies is a memorable experience. Doing it yourself even more so.
Secular modernity stands like the Second Temple, with an empty room at its center. The relics of God’s direct involvement on Earth in the form of the Mosaic tablets, if they ever existed, are long gone. The last prophets who served as mouthpieces of God, whether they were even real prophets or not, were centuries ago and exist now only in ancient cautionary texts. It is up to us to symbolically fill that space with something worth our devotion and praise.
Nihilism, true existential nihilism, is something most of us can’t really live with for any length of time. Do it long enough, and you’ll end up like me strung out on SSRIs and benzos for months until you find some way out of it, assuming you ever do. In reality, we all populate that sanctuary with something; none of us has an empty Holy of Holies.
One of the most striking moments in the Jewish liturgy is when the rituals of that Second Temple and its Holy of Holies are replicated in the synagogue Judaism we see today. During Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, a rabbi will mimic the high priest of old, and invoke God’s name in public. It’s one of the rare occasions in modern Judaism where Jews will bow and prostrate4 themselves fully.
Witnessing someone who lives in our smartphone era—LinkedIn profile, mortgage, Amazon Prime membership, the full catastrophe—pressing their heads to the pavement in the direction of Jerusalem’s Holy of Holies is a memorable experience. Doing it yourself even more so: It’s jarringly self-abasing; you stand up and feel a head rush the moment you recover your usual standing altitude. You can see why there was so much bowing and kowtowing and prostration in the ancient worlds of the bible, or more traditional societies before modernity. It makes you feel small and submissive; you’ve definitely declared to yourself and everyone around you ‘I submit to the object of my obeisance.’
Religious imponderables around God’s existence or the explainability of evil are nice and all, but ultimately mostly irrelevant to day-to-day life. What’s inside that sanctuary is what really matters, even if its contents are often mysterious even to ourselves. But when the name of your God is called out—be it capitalism, consumerism, social justice, or an idol you’ve erected to yourself—and you reflexively genuflect in reverence, you’ll know the choice you’ve made.
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Dara Horn, author of People Love Dead Jews, makes the interesting point that Christian narratives are intrinsically different from Jewish ones. Consider how the Gospels are providential and uplifting: Christ has died! Christ has risen! Christ will come again! Even the trippy final book of the New Testament, Revelation, tells of a new Garden of Eden emerging after all the apocalyptic drama.
The Torah ends in ambiguity and suspense: Moses dies within view of the Promised Land, addresses each of the twelve tribes and deals with some estate planning, and then THE END, roll credits. This epic exodus drama that started with a promise made to Abraham and veered through a parade of strife, doubt, destruction, redemption, and general mayhem, and then that’s it: the Jews finally get to their birthright and who knows what’s next. Forget happy endings; it’s not even narratively a clean end. It’s like the mysterious last page of a journal kept by a shipwrecked sailor discovered on some desert island, detailing years of resourceful survival and concluding with a comment about the coconuts: Holy fucking shit what happened next??
Whatever the supposed divine succession that happened here, the two testaments are not dealing with the same God. If ‘God’ at the end of the day represents the organizing narrative and moral arc of the people who worship that deity, then the Jewish and Christian worlds are operating off of very different scripts.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” Deuteronomy 25:17-19
At some point I’m going to muster the courage to write something about how the Western world’s (mis)understanding of Israeli foreign policy is based on a Christian notion of universalism and forgiveness, two forces relatively much weaker in the Jewish worldview. For now however, Meir Soloveichik’s take on the differing notions of Christian and Jewish justice in armed conflict, ‘The Virtue of Hate,’ will have to do.
Due to the Judaic hyper-allergy to anything even vaguely smacking of idolatry, the religion isn’t big on kneeling and bowing in general. The casus belli of the Esther story that inspired the Purim holiday is Esther’s father Mordechai refusing to bow to the Persian vizier Haman (though the reasons why, like almost everything in Judaism, are still debated).