Monday, October 22, 2007

Religion and Belief in God

I see that I wasn't careful in formulating a thought, and where I intended to say one thing, it came out meaning something else.

Clearly, belief in God is important in Judaism. But not in a completely obvious way. For which I offer the following (extremely abridged) brief history of Jewish religious thought and beliefs.

When you look at the story of the patriarchs, monotheistic belief is obviously central. It's still pretty central in Exodus, too, although layers of legal and moral thought are moving forward onto the stage. By the prophets, religious belief is beginning to move to a new position: that of the lighting by which what is happening on the stage is visible: it's essential, without it you can't see anything, but it's not at center stage. After the cessation of prophecy and the advent of the oral law and its ever-evolving system, center stage hardly deals directly with faith at all. There is a quick discussion in the Talmud of dogmas, but it's extremely perfunctory, in an ocean of verbosity. In the middle ages when a number of sages tried, sort of half-heartedly, to construct a theology with dogmas implied heresies and all that, you get the impression that even they knew they were addressing Catholicism, not the needs of their own culture. The theater, in the meanwhile, had branched out to music, and operas.

Then, quite recently in history, say a century or two ago, the lighting became less crucial. Nowadays you don't need lighting to see the stage, because in a movie theater the film supplies the light; but you don't need the theater anymore either, because you can download the film to your hand-held device. If it's simply music you're interested in, you can download it to your iPod. With nary a need for lighting of any sort.

And so also in Judaism. Where for millenia it would have been impossible to separate the faith from the practice of Judaism, because (almost) no-one could have dreamed of the concept, by now it's an obvious alternative. And this is where the anomaly of Judaism and faith become clear. Since the content of Judaism is so rich, while the belief part was obvious but not center stage, it's actually not particularly problematic to be a practicing Jew, even of the most strict orthodox form, without worrying about the belief.

I'm told that when a protestant loses their belief, it's not clear there's anything left of their religion. When a worried young orthodox Jews goes to the rabbi to talk about his diminishing faith, the rabbi is as likely as not to tell him (or her) to keep practicing, to get married quickly with a good Jewish spouse, to have lots of kids and be very very busy with them, and to worry about the belief thing after 40, by which time habits will have solved the issue.

Are the Jewish communities full of religious scholars who are also atheists? Probably not - but such people certainly exist, and we can all name a few, either the prominent and famous ones, or the local ones we know personally. Ironically, when Jay Michaelsen claims in his Forward article that started this string that there's a need to develop a Jewish culture for atheists, he's deep inside traditional Jewish practice, probably far more than he'd like to think. What's new and unserious about his article is the idea that the way to do so is to abandon the old-fashion things and start out in new directions.

1 comment:

Lydia McGrew said...

Pascal, of course, proposed exactly the practice-it-and-faith-may-take-care-of-itself approach to Christianity. As do many Catholics, as well.

The thing is, from a purely practical point of view, that it would seem to me the approach would wear thin if one encountered a really strong temptation _not_ to practice one's religion. Especially if it were highly uncomfortable or inconvenient. One would think, "Why the _heck_ am I doing this (or not doing that other thing that I'd really like to do)?"

In other words, practice can strengthen or lead to faith, but faith also gives you a reason to engage in the practice (or not to do things your religion forbids) when you really don't want to stick with the practice.