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Rethinking Judaism

7/13/2011
Larry Gillick

I. God and Judaism

Judaism is a central part of my life. I am moved by its traditions and rituals, stimulated by its literature, and engaged by its history. However, I am also an atheist, in that I do not believe and, as far as I can remember, have never believed in any sort of a God. This includes the various human-like versions of God found in the Tanakh or the Talmud, but it also includes the more abstract God of Maimonides. More than that, I also am dissatisfied with the various contemporary attempts to rescue the idea of God. Mordechai Kaplan found God in a mysterious force for good in mankind. Arthur Green imagines a mystical God who transcends the universe, continuing in the Kabbalistic tradition. Harold Schulweis finds God in certain sorts of human activities, like visiting the sick or feeding the hungry. Others speak more vaguely about feelings of sanctity and draw the inference that there must be something transcendent that is responsible for these feelings. But, to me, God is simply a fictional character.

Now some people might think that because I am an atheist, then I must surely be hostile towards religion – and yet, as I just indicated, I am not. Instead, I feel that religion is an essential, even inevitable, part of human civilization, as I'll discuss later. It is this seeming paradox that I want to address. I wish to give an account of how it can be that a religion like Judaism, in which the one God plays such a central role, can possibly be so meaningful to an atheist.

Here is the short summary of a proposed solution to this apparent paradox. I shall argue that Judaism can be regarded as a collective cultural creation of the Jewish people, more akin to a body of literature than to a collection of philosophical truths. Its holidays, its rituals, its prayers, and its lifecycle events satisfy deep needs that we have. These needs arose through a long process of human evolution over millions of years. Religion, in general, is an inescapable part of human culture, probably wired in during our long prehistorical past. Judaism is the version of religion that we Jews have inherited from our ancestors. My contention is that the existence or non-existence of God can be seen as largely irrelevant to the experience of living a Jewish life, if only you regard the contents of our tradition as a collective invention of the Jewish people.

Before going on, though, to try to address this paradox in more detail, let's step back a moment and think about the connection between religion and truth in a general way. Religions generally make claims about their truthfulness. Judaism, in particular, appears to make various claims about the world and about history. For example, we are led to believe that Moses received the Torah from God on Mt Sinai, that Pharaoh let the Israelites depart from Egypt after God inflicted the plagues on the Egyptians, and so forth. Among the ultra-orthodox, it is taken for granted that these sorts of statements are simply true. Among liberal Jews, however, it is never entirely clear what we are to make of them. Are some of these statements true? Might some of them be partially true? Is any of this true at all? I would propose that the answer to that last question is no! For one thing, if religions all claim to embody the truth, and those truth claims are in conflict, then we have the traditional recipe for disaster. Indeed, in the recent past we have observed the ugly and violent conflict between Shiite and Sunni in Iraq. The fate of mankind may depend on our ability to see that religions have little to do with the notion of truth – but I'll return to this point later.

Aside from the ultra-orthodox, few Jews read our traditional literature in a literal way. Actually, a non-literal approach to Judaism is not new to our time. David Biale traces the rise of Jewish secularism in his very interesting intellectual history "Not in the Heavens." The Talmudic Rabbis were already reading the Torah in a highly imaginative, symbolic manner. Biale discusses the case of Maimonides, who lived more than 800 years ago, and who at that time was insisting that the Torah had to be interpreted, that the wise person was one who could look beneath the surface of the text to see what the real messages were. Maimonides, in one of his most radical innovations, developed his doctrine of negative attributes as a way of dealing with the idea of God. He argued that it was impossible to attribute characteristics to God, such as "God is good" or "God is vengeful." Instead one should say: "God is not bad" or "God is not disinclined to vengeance." The God of Maimonides was so abstract, Biale argues, that it wasn't actually such a big step to discard the idea of God entirely.

Theological theorists like Mordechai Kaplan and Arthur Green sought to redefine God in a way that didn't conflict with the scientific knowledge that we have so painfully acquired. However, the imaginative efforts of theorists like Kaplan and Green at reworking the idea of God do not strike me as successful. For one thing, the God of their theories seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the God of either the Torah or of the Siddur. For another, there is no actual evidence that their theories are in any sense true. But, to me, there is something even more objectionable than the sheer implausibility of the ideas of the "new God" theorists (to use Mitchell Silver's description of them). I object to the fact that their theories seem to be useless. There are certainly many mysteries in the world. What is consciousness? How did life begin? Why is there something rather than nothing (to pick a few obvious ones)? But it is not clear how invoking the existence of these weirdly abstract supreme beings helps us to better comprehend these mysteries, let alone solve the difficult problems that we inevitably encounter in our lives. One senses a kind of desperation among these thinkers. Perhaps they are worried that Judaism will die if they cannot salvage some workable notion of God?

But let's set aside what others have thought about God, and turn back to the question that I raised at the beginning of this talk. Does Judaism truly depend on the existence of God? To put it differently, does it make sense to be involved in Judaism if you do not believe in God? I would like to suggest an account of Judaism in which the reality of God is simply not an issue.

Judaism is a special kind of collective cultural creation. It is the product of thousands of years of history, and the result of contributions from thousands, maybe we should really say millions of individuals. We have produced books like the Tanakh, the Midrashic collections, the Talmud, the medieval commentaries, as well as contemporary literature such as has been written by Kaplan and Green. We have created holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur. We have created rituals such as we find in our Shabbat services: reciting psalms, chanting the Torah, interpreting the weekly parasha. We reflect on those we have lost through the Kaddish. I could go on and on listing the products of the Jewish tradition, but we all know what these elements are.

I sometimes wonder whether the people who wrote the stories in the Tanakh, or who composed the halakhot and aggadot (laws and lore) in the Talmud – I wonder whether they actually knew that they were making this stuff up. How could they not have known? But whether they knew it or not, we can certainly know that they were inventing the central elements of Judaism. When we have a discussion on Shabbat morning, and we reflect on the characters in the Torah, on Abraham, on Moses, or on God – we are contributing to this tradition of collective cultural creation. When we do that, when we speculate on why someone did this or that, when we offer a hidush (a new insight), we are also making this stuff up. It is, as the tradition says, "not in the Heavens" – "Lo bashamayim!"

We tend to think of cultural artifacts as having a single creator. Beethoven wrote his 9th symphony on his own. Shakespeare (presumably) wrote Hamlet by himself. One of the great discoveries of the twentieth century was the value of co-authorship! Mathematicians and scientists today generally do research and write papers in small groups, and the result of this new pattern has been much faster progress. But we can think of the entire body of knowledge of Mathematics as an instance of a collective cultural creation, the product of many minds over centuries. The same can be said of Physics or of Biology or of other academic disciplines. However, in these disciplines, the main value of the cultural products is in their truthfulness. If the propositions of Physics were false, then this body of knowledge would be without value.

Judaism as a cultural creation is, however, different in character from Mathematics or Physics or Evolutionary Theory. To begin with, it is not a collection of true statements. In fact, my main contention is that the statements in Jewish sources are generally neither true nor false, just as the lines in Hamlet are neither true nor false. Judaism is much more akin to a kind of collective literary product than it is to a collective body of knowledge. But it is much more than a literary product, in that it consists of more than texts. As we know, it also includes special foods, melodies, candle-lighting, fasting, and other rituals of various sorts. In some ways, Judaism resembles a collection of theatrical productions that we collectively act out as we proceed through the year or, actually, as we proceed through life. Isn't Yom Kippur a kind of theological drama, where our fate lies in the balance until the gates of heaven close with the setting of the sun? But the truth is that although there are partial analogs to what we find in Judaism, there are no precise ones – except, perhaps, those that can be found in other religions.

Once you start thinking this way, once you start to regard Judaism as a collective creation of the Jewish people, a cultural product that has no supernatural or divine dimension, I guess it's natural to ask: why do we care so much about this activity? We are not going to services, celebrating holidays, and studying Torah because God commanded it or even because we have a relationship with God. We must be doing these things for some other reason.

I have been intrigued for some time by the relatively new subject of evolutionary psychology. This discipline attempts to explain various features of the human psyche as having arisen from an evolutionary process. The fact that we have a sense of justice, for example, is no accident. It doesn't arise purely from our surrounding culture. Instead it arose from the way in which humans evolved in small groups, in which people cooperated with one another or failed to cooperate with one another. We are exquisitely sensitive to the justice of individual transactions with other humans because of the central importance of this process for our ancestors. Early humans who were better at detecting fraud or exploitation left more offspring, or at least, that's the sort of argument that evolutionary psychologists make.

I think that it is fair to say that religion is a feature of all human societies, just as a concern with justice seems to be a feature of all human societies. Indeed, various evolutionary psychologists have argued that involvement with religion is another result of the process by which we evolved. Our love for ritual, our desire to share important life events with a small group (with a tribe!), our love of shared stories and songs: these features are, I think, wired into our psyches. If this analysis is correct, then we can no more do away with religion than we can do away with justice. It is simply part of our human inheritance, part of what actually makes us human. The new atheists (people like Sam Harris, for example) seem to miss this point: that we humans need religion.

The content of religion, just like the content of the notion of justice, is highly variable from one human group to another. The evolutionary process has blessed human beings (if I can put it that way) with wonderful imaginations. We are capable of creating endless laws, stories, rituals, and songs as a way of binding us together in a cohesive group. In the monotheistic religions, God plays a central role in these cultural elements, but in Confucianism and Buddhism, He does not. While religion seems to be universal, God seems to be a more contingent invention.

In any case, Judaism is our particular instance of this universal process of cultural creation. An evolutionary theorist once said that human beings secrete religion in something like the same way that spiders secrete webs. Judaism is, then, the web that we Jews have secreted that binds us together as a people.

II. Ritual without God

Now I must turn to the most difficult part of my argument. When we become self-conscious about what we are doing when we act as part of our religious tradition, when we Jews become aware that we have in fact invented the whole thing (from beginning to end), that Judaism is, in essence, akin to a work of fiction – what then happens to our relationship to this Tradition? One possibility is that this insight might simply end our interest in Judaism. This has certainly been true for many Jews, and you might think that this is the inevitable consequence of the march of scientific progress. Perhaps it is similar to the way in which we set aside childish fantasies when, as adults we become more fully in touch with reality.

Let's consider a few elements of Judaism to see whether our demythologized worldview must inevitably impair our religious experience. On Yom Kippur, as I mentioned earlier, we participate in a drama in which we reflect on our lives and on our actions in the past year, and we hope to atone for our misdeeds. God, of course, plays a leading role – as we appeal to Him for forgiveness. When we are immersed in this drama as participants, we can be as deeply engaged as when we attend a powerful performance of a play or other work of art – perhaps even more engaged, because we are not simply part of an audience. Instead, we are part of a Jewish congregation, which in turn is part of the larger Jewish community, and we together are collectively involved in tshuva, in turning ourselves towards a better life in the future. When the service comes to an end, the enchantment dissipates, but it leaves behind a residue that is no less real for having been derived from a kind of collective fantasy. Would Hamlet be more powerful if the play were true? How important is it that the Yom Kippur drama be an accurate account of how God and man interact? Maybe Yom Kippur is even more compelling when we realize that we Jews have ourselves created this powerful symbolic means for achieving a better life.

Or consider Shabbat. Obviously, God didn't create the world in six days and then rest on the seventh day! Nonetheless, we can collectively engage in the Shabbat drama, a drama in which we labor for six days and then rest on the seventh according to the traditional pattern, beginning with the candle lighting and Kiddush, and ending with Havdalah. Doesn't this work even if God is a fictional character? The truth is that we Jews invented Shabbat, and then we attributed the invention to God. It was very modest of us, but has contributed to a lot of confusion.

Finally, let's consider a particular prayer, the Kaddish – the prayer that we say to remember someone whom we have lost. I am always moved by this part of the service, whether I say the full text or only the responses. I often remember saying Kaddish for my mother and my father at their gravesides. I think of friends who have lost loved ones, of all the other people who have suffered terrible losses in recent times, in the Shoah, and in the more distant past. In saying this prayer, we are really praising the world, the strange universe we find ourselves in, reminding ourselves that life goes on even after a loss. The poetry of this prayer is not dependent on the literalism of our ultra-orthodox brethren. It is available to all who have the imagination to see the message behind the words, as we learned long ago from Maimonides.

This perspective on Judaism as a cultural creation is actually not so different, I think, than what we find among liberal Jews in general. I wonder whether I am simply saying out loud what many people already are thinking. In fact, maybe Mordechai Kaplan was using poetic language to say exactly the same thing that I (in my more pedestrian way) am seeking to express. When he referred to the idea that God was the force for good in the universe, perhaps he was simply using symbolic language to capture the idea that we should strive for that which is best within us. If that was all he meant, then I guess I can't really argue with him. Maybe this lengthy account I have just given is simply my rediscovery of Kaplan's hidden logic. On the other hand, why was Kaplan so insistent on talking about God if he was actually an atheist? If he was an atheist, wouldn't it have been better for him to be more open about it? But maybe he would have lost his job if he had admitted his lack of belief!

We are inheritors of a long tradition. Each generation must decide what to make of the tradition it has received, whether and how to modify it, and whether to preserve it for future generations. There is something broadening and powerful about inhabiting the mental universes of past generations but we must also strengthen our connections with our own time. On the other hand, while much has changed in the last few thousand years, our fundamental nature has remained the same. Still, if Judaism is to prosper, innovation is necessary and, in fact, all around us we see evidence of the evolution of Judaism: in the type of music we use, the changing role of women, the rise of the Havurah movement, the evolving language of prayer in liberal siddurim. The paradoxical challenge for us and for our children is the same as it has always been for Jews. We must reinvent the tradition that we have inherited.