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Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

Replacing Faith with Wonder: Thinking in Jewish 34

As readers already know I am a secular Jew. I am also a Jewish atheist. This set of facts, perhaps, presents a difficult question of trying to connect these two similar but separate positions. How can this aporia be resolved; how is an understood connection to a Jewish continuum be reconciled with a secular position of atheism, a rational rejection of the existence of God? Is it possible that the two are not self-exclusionary, one canceling the other? In fact, I believe they are compatible, even necessary in today’s hyper-atomistic, self-centered, selfish world.

Let me begin with the idea that in spite of being a secular Jewish American I am directly connected to a lineage that dates back perhaps 14 millennia; a lineage of written texts that tell the story of a particular people arising from the stories of the Middle East. Texts, with origins in mythology, beginning with the Torah and carried on as a tradition of teaching and learning through the rest of the Tanakh, Mishnah, the two Talmuds and commentaries that followed to the present day. While I have a deep interest in understanding the historical relationship of text to text as well as an interest in an account of who may or may not have committed those texts to writing thereby preserving them for generations to come, in the final analysis it simply doesn’t matter about the historicity of the texts themselves or the authorship of those texts. While I find much to disagree with in the textual message, like the very idea that an all powerful God would be so insecure as to require curses for disobedience, when one carefully explores the texts themselves as total entities rather than as catch phrases, there is often a significant underlying ethical truth revealed.

One might ask, for example, if there is any ‘truth’ to Shakespeare’s character of Shylock or MacBeth, or Lear any more than there is any ‘truth’ in the biblical Moses, King David or Job. Let’s for a moment consider that all six characters mentioned are fictional. Does this mean that the characters themselves do not exist? I believe it can safely be argued that all six exist in the here and now while the question as to whether or not they were historical figures is irrelevant. They exist because they can easily be accessed because their words have been preserved in the continuity of text. Each of the characters may be accessed and the lessons they have to offer may be learned irregardless of whether or not I profess faith or belief, whether or not I believe in a creator deity or question if William Shakespeare actually was the author of the body of work attributed to him. Those questions, it seems, are irrelevant to the ethics embedded in the stories, in the available human lessons that may be learned. In thinking about the textual connection as a viable condition for understanding I am able to turn faith into wonder.

In this sense, wonder provides a unique freedom to accept some but not all of the written word. It means that I am able to read a text critically and completely; to not be satisfied with slogans cherry-picked from the text without placing those slogans into a rich context of the whole text from which the slogans were stripped. There is much in Jewish textual material that I find abhorrant at worst and naive at best. Some of the text I find arbitrary while some simply cannot stand up to the scrutiny of a natural world. Yet there are stories in the vastness and complexity of Jewish textual material that illustrate important ethical lessons. The fact that some of the texts are deserving of rejection does not mean that much is not worthy of consideration. It is interesting to consider, for example, that just among the named sages of the Mishnah, Tosefta and the two Talmuds, there are more people richly contributing to the texts that all of the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome combined. There is a rich scholarly heritage attached to the library of Jewish textual documents that serve the greater purpose of providing continuity from generation to generation across millennia

While I rationally reject the existence of God (as Bertrand Russell once quipped about this very subject, “Not enough evidence!”) and see little purpose in following an arbitrary set of commandments that are supposed to insure that I live an ethical life based on the fear of reprisal from an impassioned God, I do not reject the continuity provided across more generations than I can ever hope to count, a continuity bound together by an ever increasing volume of textual response to problems of the day. Being a secular Jewish atheist is completely in accord with the continuity of text, of the words spoken by my grandfather’s grandfather as far back as human memory cares to travel. I read these texts from a sense of wonder rather than from a sense of faith or belief and the wonder allows me to connect to the living characters, the men and women that were we to be able to meet across space and time would have something in common to talk about.

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With Apologies to Bertrand Russell: Why I Am Not a Believer!

Studying the Talmud

Studying the Talmud (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few posts ago I mentioned that I am an atheist. I was raised as a Modern Classical Reform Jew in the suburbs of  the North Shore of Chicago however I never much found the need to devote much effort to a piecemeal Jewish education. As an undergraduate student I took an elective in comparative religions. During that semester I came across the works of Joseph Campbell and his inquiry into comparative mythology. I became more convinced that man created his gods and not the other way round.

After undergraduate school I chose to go to St. Louis University for graduate studies in Latin American history under the mentorship of John Francis Bannon, SJ. Being one of only a handful of Jewish students (it’s like the mafia, once you’re in you’re in and there is but one way out) at a Catholic university, I experienced a sort of strange, albeit, unexpected acceptance. This was the time of John XXIII and Vatican II when the Jews were absolved of any further guilt for their perceived sins. I actually felt no relief, rather the raw emotion was one of indigence; who gave you the right to absolve me of sins I could never have committed and where is the apology for nearly 2000 years of persecution and lies? It helps to remember that this was a mere twenty years after the Shoah (you might know it as the Holocaust). As a brief note, Shoah is a Hebrew word meaning destruction while Holocaust derives from a Greek word meaning burnt offering. Most Jews today prefer the term Shoah to Holocaust because of the sacrificial (religious) undertones of the latter.

In my middle years I looked at the synagogue as a place to go for weddings, funerals and bar (bat) mitzvahs. The general liturgy made little sense to me. I went about my life, not seeking a god but not avoiding one either. As an atheist it was and is clear to me that if there were convincing (not self-serving) evidence for the existence of a god, any god, then I would be convinced and would no longer be an atheist. I make a rational choice to reject the theistic choice based on evidence rather than take the coward’s way out and claim to be an agnostic.

Much to my surprise, about ten years ago I became quite interested in the notion of the ethics of responsibility, a postmodern idea arising from the work of Emmanuel Levinas. The more I read Levinas the more I became attracted to Jewish texts, many of which had a profound influence on Levinas’s work. I began reading Torah and Talmud, studying first with a Lubavitcher rabbi and later, for a very brief time, with a Conservative rabbi. When I moved to the Northwestern suburbs of Chicago I no longer had ready access to a Chabad house and so I stopped studying. About three months ago a Chabad house not 10 miles from my house opened and I am pleased to announce that I will be reading Talmud and Torah with the new Lubavitcher rabbi at this Chabad house.

Why would an atheist Jew want to read sacred texts? Frankly, the answer is quite simple. I find great ethical wisdom in the methodology attached to reading Jewish text. The readings are alive, subject to interpretation in the postmodern world we live in, have significant influence on social justice and, if one can read beyond the verse as expected, the ethical implications are significant. Furthermore, reading these texts, the texts that are so closely attached to my cultural history, is another way of knowing. The pages of the Talmud are filled with an existential argument deconstructing the very texts they are commenting upon. As an alternative to the Greek approach of logical argumentation, that which I am steeped in, the arguments of the Talmud appear to skirt around the point until the point can be made and even then there is potential disagreement among the sages.

Learning to think in Jewish (Talmudic discourse) as opposed to thinking in Greek (philosophical discourse) allows for the potential to synthesize the two, to join the two in a proximity that affords a deeper understanding of my own ethical obligation to others even before I have an obligation to myself. This does not mean that this course of study will “allow” me to “find” god or gods; that, I think, is not my motivation. The evidence for the existence of such a deity is overwhelmingly absent. What it will do, however, is allow me to pursue a course of study that is open to a different way of thinking.

I was, to tell the truth, inspired to write this because so many people who have visited my blog have offered to pray for me. While I have no objection to those finding comfort in prayer (I meditate after all), I have no expectation that those prayers will be heard by anyone or any thing other than anyone within earshot. I certainly have no expectation that such prayers will make any difference at all in my course of treatment.

Please, don’t get the wrong idea. I am not disrespecting your beliefs or your religious practices. I am merely explaining briefly why I am not a believer; I do not expect miracles, expect to be singled out, either positively or negatively, by some inaccessible deity hovering around in some supra-natural context. I do not believe that my cancer is a punishment for past sins or that any potential recovery will be a miracle. I put my trust in the existential moment of existence, try to show up the best I can at any given moment and deal with the messy stuff that is the hallmark of the existential life.

Given my encounter with my own mortality, I take great comfort in those atheists who have faced their demise with dignity and hope; Christopher Hitchens comes immediately to mind. Like Bertrand Russell once said when he was asked what he would tell god if, after his death god asked him why he did not believe, “Not enough evidence!” replied Russell. I might alter Russell’s quip to be, “Far too much evidence against!”

So pray for me if you must. I won’t object. But, please, don’t come back to me with reasons I should become a believer, work on my eternal soul, or take a positive stance rather than one that you feel endangers my eternal soul. Look, there is nothing positive about cancer; there is, however, something quite positive in living in this very moment and continuing to do what must be done. There is, it seems to me, clarity in being a post-Shoah Jew with a lust for life yet being aware of living within the bookends of the infinity of nothingness. I refuse to hang on to the Bronze Age mythology that just happens to have a history of longevity, other than to understand it as a discourse worthy of engagement on an intellectual rather than on a spiritual level.

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