Saturday, April 21, 2012

Problem #4: God Is a Mental Health Liability

In the introduction to this section, we touched upon aspects of God-psychology which are undoubtedly positive for people: comfort, security, sense of purpose, strength, hope, and so on. And for someone who merely believes in a personal God, a loving Creator with no major strings attached, the potential cost (even if this belief is a delusion, pure wishful thinking) is not terribly high. We all live under a certain degree of delusion, and in many cases it helps us to better function in the world.

However, to walk around believing that not only is there a God, but that this God created the world in six days, literally according to the Creation story, flooded the entire earth save Noah and his Ark, caused the sea to split before Moses, came down in smoke and lightning on Mount Sinai and issued eternal instructions in the form of the Torah, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who do not, reigns on high in the celestial kingdom atop the Throne of Glory, surrounded by angels adorning the heavenly court, that there are talking snakes and donkeys, people who once lived hundreds of years, that the universe is only 5700+ years old... To believe all this (or even a portion of it), when there is either evidence against it, or at the very best an utter lack of positive evidence for it, that is a level of delusion comparable to living in a fantasy world.

Now, there is a time and place for living in a fantasy world. For children, it is a completely normal part of development, a healthy way to exercise their imagination. Children can believe in supernatural beings, miracles, fantastic abilities which defy all reason and experience, and we liberally allow them this leeway, not wanting to prematurely place the limitations of adult, real-world thinking upon them. And yes, even for adults it is perfectly healthy and appropriate to indulge the imagination at times, but as a child grows older, she/he is supposed to develop the reasoning to distinguish between the real world and the world of fantasy. As the above beliefs (that is, Biblical literalist/fundamentalist beliefs) testify, the normal processes of reasoning and maturation are stunted by normative Orthodox theology.

Connected to this is magical thinking. Children commonly ascribe to themselves powers they do not possess (e.g., laser vision used to strike down foes on the playground), and this again is quite normal. Indeed, adults also employ magical thinking at times (e.g., blowing on dice before throwing them). But a normal, mentally healthy adult engages in such thinking with a grain of salt, knowing full well that it is pure superstition, and is capable of distinguishing between magic and reality.

Consider the institution of prayer. Of course, there is prayer as catharsis, as gaining clarity about one's wants and needs, as instilling compassion, hope and gratitude in the person praying. There is the comfort in knowing that one is being prayed for. Yet these are all reducible to psychological phenomena. However, the belief that one can affect others at a distance (via God or in conjunction with a Rabbi, living or deceased) involves magical thinking. Until there is evidence for human telepathy or telekinesis, the notion that one's thoughts and words (no matter how sincere or fervent), said in private, can travel across the world (or even across one's house) to have a direct effect on someone or something else, is pure fantasy. To indulge in such fantasy when in the throes of a dire situation is understandable. But to do so day after day, and to believe that by reciting certain words in a certain formulation, and by having certain "kavanot" (intents), this will affect celestial realms and influence events here on earth - that is grandiose thinking, a sign that the person lives in a world of magic.

True, magical thinking and fantasy, in and of themselves, can make for a perfectly pleasant existence (albeit highly deluded). However, there are aspects of traditional Orthodox belief which can be less than pleasant, and whose psychopathology brings with it much suffering. Examples are guilt, neurosis and anxiety.

Guilt is something we have come to expect from religion. One who believes that God is watching at every moment and has a highly specific and ambitious set of expectations of them, and who believes that "spiritual damage" is caused whenever she/he steps out of line, is certainly liable to feel guilty for even the most innocent or minute infractions. All the more so for intentional, repeated infractions, this can produce an intense guilt that weighs heavily on a person, to the point of inducing depression, self-loathing, and a deep sense of shame.

Becoming neurotic about the performance of mitzvot is an all-too common malady in traditional Orthodox circles. The "fear of Heaven", or the fear of creating a disturbance in the "celestial plumbing" (the Kabbalistic/mystical mindset), can cause a person to become obsessive-compulsive in ritual performance, caught up in the most minute details, not being satisfied until utter perfection is achieved (which quite often is an impossibility). Yes, there can be something positive in training oneself to be dedicated and detailed, but when the implications are eternal and cosmic, it can turn obsessive, impairing a person's ability to function properly or happily, bringing an immense amount of stress upon themselves and others, such as family members whose physical performance of mitzvot lacks sufficient "attention to detail" and is met with disappointment, frustration or outright anger.

Neurosis is really part of a wider class of disorders related to anxiety, of which living in a God-reality provides no shortage. Take for example the prevalent idea that "everything God does is for the good". It sounds positive enough, and in fact such belief can provide tremendous comfort for some people at times of tragedy or loss. When one is struck with a devastating loss, left shocked and confused, unsure about how to piece life back together, the idea that God has a plan that is beyond human comprehension means that the person does not have to figure it all out, does not have to carry the burden - that can be left to God. However, when absolutely everything that happens is believed to be a product of the will and plan of God, as having divine purpose and meaning - and for the believer that certainly includes whatever happens to them, this has the potential to make a person positively paranoid. "God must be testing me... cleansing me... sending me a message... But what is the test? What is the message? Why am I being cleansed? What did I do wrong this time?" The same feeling of "being held" can easily morph into the feeling of being squeezed, choked or strangled: "Help! I can't take these tests anymore!"

Remove God from the Torah system, and we will have effectively eliminated needless guilt, neurosis, paranoia, stress, and the pain of disillusion that God could possibly be so cruel. We will also train ourselves to appropriately distinguish between fantasy and reality, as any mature adult should. Yes, we will have to learn to live without the psychological and emotional "crutch" that God provides, but that too is part of learning to be a mature adult. Orthodox theology has the capacity to infantilize people - "Does Hashem let?" "Let me ask my Rabbi if I can." "My Father is watching over me and protecting me - He says everything's going to be okay." The hallmark of adulthood, on the other hand, is making one's own decisions, being willing to take responsibility for one's actions. An adult knows that not everything has a "reason", and not everything will be "okay". A psychologically robust adult can live with hard truths and uncertainty.

And when we are faced with pain, loneliness, fear, desperation and confusion, this is what our fellow human beings are for... to stand alongside us, cry with us, share the feeling of uncertainty, and in so doing, to give us the comfort and strength we need to stand tall and move forward - and to help others in need.

This is the path to achieving a strong, mature, robust and positive mental health profile - and is yet another example of what is wrong with God.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Problem #3: God Is "Unholy"

The Torah asserts that human beings are made in the "image of God." Much ink has been spilled to try to understand what this means. On the simple and straightforward level, "image" and "likeness" may well relate to the physical similarity between human beings and God. (Yes, ancient theology was much more corporeal than it has become acceptable to acknowledge.) But based on the context of the narrative, the phrase "image of God" can also be understood to refer to the conscious mind, and its uniquely human capacity to analyze, conceptualize, create, formulate, consider, ponder, reflect, choose, and so on. This is confirmed when the Serpent tells Eve that if she eats from the Tree of Knowledge, her eyes will be opened and she will be "as gods*," knowing good and bad. To what do eyes opening and knowledge relate, if not the mind? Thus to be "godly" is to have a mind. (Of course, the reality is in all likelihood quite the opposite; to be human is to have a mind, and it is the human being who fashioned God in her/his own image.)

Now, since the seat of the human being's godliness is in the mind, and "godliness" is correlated to "holiness," then the mind is none other than the Holy of Holies. Indeed, the mystical tradition understands the soul (neshama) as residing in the brain. Of course the very concept of "holiness" is itself a construct of the mind. Meaning, there is nothing, no place and no person, which is "holy" apart from its having been designated as such by the human being. Barring some sort of shocking discovery, there appears to be no intrinsic holiness, no mysterious and magical property buzzing within spaces such as the Temple, and any belief in such is superstitious, rather akin to belief in magic. So too, the mind is not "intrinsically" holy. Rather, to speak of the mind as such is to regard it with awe, and to imply that we must nurture and guard it with utmost care. The mind can be likened to the Garden of Eden itself, wherein Adam was placed to "work it" and to "guard it." It is hallowed ground, to be cultivated and watched over.

How does one cultivate and protect the sanctity of the mind? By considering carefully what ideas and beliefs we allow to take root and grow there. For example, we would not want to plant and nurture patently false ideas in the mind if we could possibly help it. So we would be wise therefore to reconsider belief in God, particularly the Biblical God of Orthodox Judaism.

To explain why it is that God's miracles and overt presence are conspicuously absent in our day, Orthodox theological apologetics suggest that such revelation is "no longer needed" or "merited" by post-Biblical generations. To explain, in the light of monumental human suffering and injustice, how it is that God is perfectly "just" and "kind," it is generally asserted (in Jewish and Christian apologetics alike) that God's ways are "hidden" from humankind in our lifetime, beyond any mortal's ability to understand.

But is it not obvious how terribly convenient these explanations are, that clearly they were formulated to cover up for an unworkable theology? After all, which is more likely, that the Biblical generations were uniquely privy to the "greatest show on Earth" in the form of God's direct/open communication and miracles - and that the show simply stopped one day, or... that really there was no "show," that in fact the Bible simply reflected the beliefs and storytelling style of the day? Which is more likely, that other ancient cultures just happened to have stories about their gods and their miracles - theirs being of course "myths" and ours being "literal truth," or... that in fact all such stories are myths? Which is more likely, that there is a "hidden plan" which justifies the incredible pain and suffering of humanity throughout history, that all suffering is "just," that no evil goes unpunished and no good deed goes unrewarded - only either we cannot see it, or reward and punishment are waiting in the afterlife, in the "next world", or... that, excuse the expression, "sh*t happens" and that these "next world" explanations are designed to make us feel better and to apologize for our God?

These questions are clearly rhetorical. Of course there was no "age of miracles." Of course the notion of reward and punishment in the next world (which the Torah itself does not even write about) is merely a way to help us deal psychologically with the fact of injustice, a conceptual construction which piles untruth on top of untruth in order to defend a transparently indefensible theological position. Truly it is beneath us, as an intelligent, sharp-minded people, to accept such utter falsity, and thereby sully and desecrate the mind in such a fashion.

Leviticus 20:26 adjures us: "You will be holy to Me, because I the Lord am holy." Yes, throughout history, God has occupied a central place in the Temple of the mind, in the hallowed ground of human consciousness. Belief in the Biblical God, the Just God, was holy, healthy, reasonable, reconcilable with our worldview. How so? Wasn't common sense just as readily available to previous generations as it is to us today? Shouldn't they have seen this theology likewise as being "transparently indefensible"? No doubt there were individuals who did. But when 99% of society would view such common sense as blasphemy, when the world was absolutely rife with myth and superstition, when vehicles of mass communication were not available to the everyday person, it would have been inordinately difficult for such thinking to spontaneously take root, much less spread to others on any significant scale.

Today however, we live in a different world, and frankly we have no excuse. It should now be evident that placing the Biblical/Just God in the Temple of the mind is to affix an idol therein. It is an unholy presence.

Yes, we are charged to be a "holy nation." To be as such, we must constantly be vigilant in protecting and nurturing the mind, to try to the very best of our ability to remove all traces of falsity therefrom.  We must take our inspiration from the Maccabees and purge the Temple of the mind of all its pagan remnants and superstitions, seek out that single cruse of pure oil, that most clear and untainted/unbiased thinking, that which comports with the best of our knowledge, reasoning, wisdom and common sense, and use it to light the way for human consciousness. No swords are necessary in this battle, only the desire for truth and the courage to be real.


* Not "like God" as it is usually rendered, which would have required "yod'aya" (knowing) in the singular. Rather the text says "yod'ay" (knowing) in the plural, rendering "kelohim" to be "as gods."

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Problem #2: God Is Beneath our Dignity

Many are familiar with Maimonides' explanation of sacrifices in the Guide to the Perplexed (3:32), where he maintains that the inclusion of sacrifices in the Torah was a concession to the people, who had a desire to imitate the pagan norms of worship at the time. This is only partially correct. 

First off, while yes, the Israelites certainly would have wanted to follow local norms of worship, the Torah's prescribing of sacrifice does not reflect any language of "concession" but rather wholehearted agreement with the institution of sacrifice. Secondly, even if the author(s) of the Torah knew full well that sacrifice was not intrinsically necessary, meaning that God did not need to be fed and cared for in this way, it would still be important to maintain sacrifice, not just as a concession, but as a matter of national dignity. How could it be that other nations would show so much care and devotion to their gods, spreading out the best of the land in daily meals and incense before them, whereas we Israelites do not care enough for our God to offer even so much as a crumb. It does not look good for the nation, or for our God.

This as well answers the question about the Torah's inclusion of the "Akeida," the binding of Isaac. To be sure, we would all like to explain like the 14th Century commentator Ibn Caspi that Abraham's test was not to sacrifice Isaac. But not only does he stand fairly alone among the classical commentators in offering such an interpretation, really the Torah itself seems to clearly indicate otherwise. Abraham passed the test precisely because of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son and heir. The question of course is how could God have commanded such a sacrifice when the Torah later goes on to warn the people against following the idolatrous practices of other nations: "Do not do this to the Lord your God, because every abomination of the Lord that He hates they did to their gods; for even their sons and daughters they will burn in fire for their gods." (Deut. 12:31) 

Clearly the Torah is against child sacrifice, and the fact that the angel stopped Abraham attests to this. However, the Torah also recognized the need to have Abraham effectively sacrifice his son. Why? Because this was the way, par excellence, for a person in the ancient world to demonstrate their unequivocal devotion to their God. And if mere laypeople of other nations were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give their most prized possession, their own flesh and blood, how is it that Abraham, the "father of many peoples," the leader and progenitor of the Israelites, could not also give on this level? If he had not, it may have looked as if he lacked adequate credentials for leadership, to be God's ever-willing agent and selfless servant. It would have been beneath our national dignity, beneath God's dignity, to appear "lesser" than the nations in this regard.

Moving forward in time, prayer eventually eclipsed sacrifice as the Jewish mode of worship. Indeed, part of this owed to the destruction of the Second Temple. However, the institution of prayer had already been established well before the destruction. Clearly, just as the original Israelites wished to worship in the manner of the nations by offering sacrifices, so too did later generations desire to utilize prayer, which presumably became a mode of worship in common use by other nations, such as the Greeks. When the Temple was destroyed, prayer by default became the only mode of worship allowed. But in all probability, once sacrifice was all but rooted out of "civilized" religion and was looked upon as a vestige of paganism, of primitive religion, the notion that sacrifice could no longer be performed would have come as a welcome relief to most Jews. That is to say, prayer was now the proper mode of worship. And just as with sacrifices, it would have been below the dignity of the Jewish religion not to honor its God with prayer.

This transition was most certainly connected with the increasing appeal of Christianity. With the advent of a "New Testament" which resonated with the higher moral sensibilities of people at the time, it became beneath the dignity of a religion to have a "wrathful" God. In earlier times such a God was magnificent, powerful, respected, an honor for a people to have. No longer. But rather than add to God's word, the Jewish methodology was to reinterpret it, mold it into something acceptable. Midrash in essence saved us from the ignominy of a wrathful God. In the Biblical view, an affront to God's honor was worthy of wholesale slaughter, innocents and children alike. As much as it may be difficult for us to comprehend, this was not considered to be morally problematic at the time. In Talmudic times however, and in the Midrash, such cruel or unjustifiably harsh punishment on the part of God would be totally unacceptable. So the Midrash adds detail to the story, justifications and qualifications, to soften the blow as it were, so as to bring God in line with a more dignified conception. Likewise, the Torah extends the death penalty rather liberally according to the text. In rabbinic interpretation however, capital punishment in the Torah serves largely as a warning, which only very rarely and under the most extreme circumstances would actually be carried out.

Fast forward once again to the post-Enlightenment, post-Scientific Revolution, modern era. Whereas religion once served as the beacon of light to the world, offered answers which could be fully digested by the intellectual mind, science and secular scholarship now began to command far greater attention and respect. At the early stages, it would have been beneath the dignity of most anyone to call themselves an "atheist" per se. However, the theological dogma became softened among many intellectuals, who were attracted to more to "deistic" ideas (a more naturalistic conception of God) rather than traditional theism, with its belief in Divine oversight and judgment, Heaven and Hell, miracles, and so forth. It would be beneath the dignity of an enlightened thinker to entertain fundamentalist beliefs. However, it would also be unseemly to profess in public the denial of a God/Creator altogether.

Nowadays, throughout the non-fundamentalist world, it is perfectly acceptable to call oneself an agnostic or an atheist. However, there is still a certain level stigma attached to non-belief, as evidenced by politicians who commonly pander to religious groups by professing their belief in God and Jesus Christ. Evangelical or otherwise fundamentalist Christians certainly do not see it as "beneath the dignity" of Jews to take the Bible literally. Yet in more secular circles, which includes the vast majority of academic and scholarship circles, Torah and Orthodoxy are grouped with all other forms of religious fundamentalism, being at best quaint, naive and sorely deluded, and at worst a danger to free society. Torah Jews are seen as blind followers of religious doctrine, denying basic facts about the origin and age of the Universe and the development of life on Earth. They are seen as teaching their children to believe in myth and superstition, holding fast to antiquated notions about women and gays, and to varying degrees as rejecting the value of secular knowledge and studies. And they would be correct in this.

It is contrary to the honor and dignity of Torah, and of Jewish civilization, for such beliefs and attitudes (and in some cases, practices) to be perpetuated. It should be beneath the dignity of any people who seeks truth, who eschews the worship of falseness, to carry on professing myth to be reality, and reality be the product of a "secular agenda". It will eventually be beneath our dignity to walk into synagogue with the intent of worshiping a God. All this is a "Chilul HaShem", a blight on the name of Torah and Judaism.

That, in brief, is another example of what is "wrong" with God.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Problem #1: God Defies Reasonability

Discussions about whether or not to believe in God generally come from either the truth angle or the utilitarian angle. Truth arguments relate to whether or not it is reasonable to postulate God's existence. Utilitarian arguments relate not to the fact of God's existence, but to whether belief in God is a constructive, positive force in the world, or whether it is a destructive force. The previous section outlined in brief some of the utilitarian arguments for belief in God, particularly as it pertains to Jews living in the religious community. This section will briefly address the question of the "truth" of God's existence.

It must be understood from the outset that it is in no way possible to demonstrate or prove conclusively whether God does or does not exist. The question relates to the reasonability of postulating one way or the other. To examine this, it is important that we first make the distinction between "God the Creator" and "God of the Torah."

I maintain that belief in a Creator of the Universe is perfectly reasonable. We do not understand how existence came to be what it is, and it is reasonable to speculate that there is an Intelligence behind it. (This is not, to be clear, an argument for Intelligent Design, which claims to offer evidence for God's existence based on gaps in nature, especially in evolution, that it proposes could not have been bridged were it not for Divine intervention. The consensus at this time in the scientific community is that Intelligent Design is a pseudo-scientific enterprise, whose arguments do not comprise anything on the order of evidence of the supernatural.) When I say that belief in a Creator is "reasonable," I mean from the standpoint of human psychology - i.e., it is a natural thing for us to believe. If we are conscious beings with the ability to create, who is to say there is not a consciousness greater than ourselves which is responsible for the universe? Does that mean that God's existence is therefore "likely"? No. Does it say anything as to the nature of God, or for that matter how many "gods" are involved? No. Might there be a race of aliens who spawned life on Earth? There may well be.

Point being, the idea of God is pure speculation, reasonable coming from the human being, but speculation nonetheless. However, the more specificity one attaches to God the Creator, often the less reasonable the speculation becomes, and the more complex theological argumentation one must formulate in order to support that belief. For instance, the notion of a "benevolent" God is one which is difficult to support. Positing such inevitably leads to the theological paradox often brought between God's omnipotence and God's benevolence (i.e., the question as to why an all-powerful God does not intervene to curtail suffering). It is precisely theological questions such as these, which appear contrived, needless, and frankly irksome, which draw many people to an atheistic position. After all, why enter into such a paradox when there is a far more straightforward way out?

Much ink has already been spilled on arguments for God's existence (cosmological, teleological/unmoved mover, Jewish-historical, etc.), and I do not intend to elaborate on these here. Suffice it to say, such arguments may highlight lapses in our knowledge, or phenomena that are unique and highly intriguing, but they in no way require that we fill in those spaces with "God," as opposed to any other natural explanation. In any case, my focus here is not on God in the abstract, ineffable sense, but on God as the giver of the Torah, God the commander, maker of miracles.

We spoke about specificity in regards to God as being inversely related to reasonability. On that count, the God of the Torah is another level of specificity altogether. To believe in this God, one has to accept that He came to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Joseph and Moses, spoke to them, took the Children of Israel out of Egypt with wonders and miracles, and commanded the mitzvot of the Torah, all of which took place approximately between 3800 and 3300 BCE. In traditional Orthodox terms, one also would have to believe (despite it not saying so it the Torah) that God dictated the entire Torah letter by letter to Moses. Again, one cannot "prove" that this did, or did not, happen. The question is one of reasonability. To that end, let us ask two simple questions:

1. Where is God now?

Stated bluntly: "Show me the miracles." If a sea can split on command, if the voice of God can be heard on the top of a mountain giving over instructions to a nation, if a column of fire/cloud can follow a people's path in the desert, if manna can fall from the sky, why is it that we do not see and experience these things (or anything remotely similar) today? To one who says that some individuals do indeed hear the word of God, I say that if you examine closely there will invariably be a more reasonable explanation. It will be accountable to some combination of self-delusion, fakery, mistaken attribution, dream, trance, hypnosis or hallucination. To one who cites real-life miracles (chance meetings/synchronous events, miraculous healings/rescues, etc.), to which hundreds of thousands of individuals regularly attest, once again there will always be a more plausible explanation, such as statistical eventuality.

That is, with the countless events and decisions a person encounters every day, it is to be expected that once in a while, one of those would have a serendipitous character. What happens is that such an event is taken not only with great surprise and joy but as also portending supernatural involvement, i.e., God's hand in the world. But for every one of those events are countless others which were decidedly less than astonishing. There were all the times you turned a corner just a split second before running into a friend from childhood. Similarly, for every person who makes a miraculous recovery, there are thousands more who do not, and their stories generally remain untold. Understandably, we prefer to relate the miraculous, happy endings, and therefore we lose sight of the fact of their statistical inevitability. Moreover, even if one were to posit supernatural explanations to things such as chance encounters, they are still miracles on a different order of magnitude than, say, water standing up like a wall, or all the firstborn males of Egypt dying overnight.

One argument made by believers is that God's "appearance" in Biblical times was due to its being a special era, whose specific needs required a more direct Divine engagement with humanity. Now that the revelation has taken place, God's face as it were has been "hidden," no longer given to open miracles, prophecy and other fantastic encounters. Ours is now a test of faith... Granted, this is an explanation, and a rather convenient one at that, but the far more reasonable explanation is that such miracles and other direct encounters with God never in fact occurred at all. And that is why we never see them today. It should be especially obvious given the fact that at the time that Torah came onto the scene, all peoples had their gods, and the powerful acts of these gods and their interrelations with humans are likewise interwoven as part of the national story. Should the Israelite story be any exception?

2. Are the mitzvot Divine?

It follows from the belief in a Divine Torah, wherein the mitzvot are commanded by God Himself, that such commandments are invested with an "eternal" quality. Their laws and principles are etched into the very fabric of the cosmos as part of the Divine will for Creation. Yet with only a cursory examination of history, it is clear that the mitzvot, far be it from being "timeless," are in fact a clear reflection of Bronze Age civilization. Israelite civil law bears a close resemblance to other codes of law from the ancient Near East. Other peoples gave tithes to their priests, and gave food and incense offerings to their gods, some in temples strikingly similar to the structure of the Mishkan. Some, including the Egyptian priesthood, performed circumcision, exercised dietary limitations, and immersed in ritual baths.

I ask then what is more likely, that everyone was closer to the Divine will at the time, that Bronze Age Mesopotamia just happened to strike upon the perfect "cosmic cocktail," such that all subsequent generations must now follow its particular set of rituals and norms as the living word of God, or that the ancient Israelites were simply a product of their time and place, albeit with their own unique "spin" on it all?

Would Moses, were he to first come on the scene today, possibly make us painstakingly (and at great cost) write out the Torah, letter by letter, on strips of animal hide attached together with sinews, because there is something "Godly" or "holy" to this specific set of materials and processes? Or was that simply the technology available at the time? These questions are obviously rhetorical, as it is certain that Torah is no more, and no less, than a product of its time. Yes, we have adapted it in many ways which make it "timeless," but to say that the Torah is God's eternal law is completely untenable. Therefore, the Biblical God, commander of mitzvot, is completely untenable.

People looking for "proofs" may wish to draw your attention to the millions who stood at Sinai and watched the revelation with their own eyes, and that in no way could this kind of story be "made up." Remember however that every ancient people had its origin story, in which the gods played a role. Myth and history were regularly interwoven as one. It is only in modern retrospect that we cannot fathom such a thing. Therefore we assume that our Biblical forebears would not have knowingly retold myths. But they were not "lying" by telling of miracles, wonders, prophecy, wrath, and Divine conquest in the desert; rather they were giving honor to their God and to the people. To tell a story (remember that as much as we are now called the "People of the Book" it was a primarily oral tradition for the entirety of the Biblical era and then some) without God, without miracles, would be at the very least dry and not terribly memorable, and further it would be unseemly, not befitting to any people, let alone a "holy nation." We had to tell our story in a supernatural, super-memorable fashion.

Just because someone is able to put words skillfully together, so as to appear to make a good case, does not make it "true." One still needs to consider common sense plausibility. And given the absence of open miracles and Divine intervention today, and the fact that the mitzvot and God-invested stories of the Torah are very much a product of their time, maintaining a belief in the God of the Torah, the commander, the miracle-worker, defies common sense. It defies reasonability.

Someone may wish to believe nonetheless, which is fine. But better to be honest and call it "faith."

Monday, April 2, 2012



Before I say what is “wrong” with God, I want to state that I recognize that there are many positive functions which God serves in people’s lives. God helps people feel that the universe has a purpose, and that they have a purpose. God gives people the sense that they have someone watching over them, protecting them, that they are never alone. God is that someone they can call out to in times of pain and desperation, a hope for salvation. God is a focal point to which to attach awe and wonder at the world, to whom to direct gratitude for any and all positive things in life. All such beneficial psychological effects of God-consciousness are the source of immeasurable comfort and strength for people, certainly not things to be tampered with lightly.

God also serves the function of “ultimate authority,” the final arbiter of good and bad, and the one who doles out reward and punishment. A “God-fearing” person is one whose fear of Heaven keeps her/him on the straight path. For such a person, crime is “sin” and worthy of divine wrath, so that even if the person manages to evade flesh and blood authorities here on earth, what comes around will eventually go around in the next world. For many, the belief in a punitive God may be the only thing standing between them and criminal, violent, or otherwise harmful behavior. This is also something not to be uprooted without at least first giving the matter some careful thought.

In addition to the psychological comfort that God provides, and the role of God as the ever-present “eye in the sky” which helps to keep us adhering closely to the mitzvot, there are other benefits of having God in one’s life as a religious Jew. One is quite simply that Orthodox communities are faith-based, God-believing communities, and it certainly is far easier to have one’s beliefs fall in line with the people around them – neighbors, rabbis, teachers at their children’s schools, etc. To reject God and live in a God-centered community is a formidable challenge, and can lead to feelings of deep alienation, the sense of being very much alone in a crowd. And one who attempts to alleviate this loneliness by being honest about their non-belief, may (depending on the tolerance-level of their community) eventually find themselves ostracized, no longer welcome. Such friction is potentially no more acute than in one's own home. To be a non-believing child in a religious household is a supremely challenging position, especially given the innate desire to be a source of "nachas" for one's parents. And to be a non-believer when one’s spouse is a believer can very possibly interfere with the couple’s level of friendship and intimacy. Practically speaking, it can make for great difficulty in running a home, raising children, and interfacing with the rest of the religious community. In short, being a non-believer can have grave social and communal repercussions.

Apart from all that, a God-orientation suffuses one’s Torah learning with an air of cosmic importance. When the secrets of God and the universe are bound up in a verse in the Torah or words of the Sages, when their significance is greater than any words can truly describe, this brings an air of fantastic weightiness to one’s Torah learning, infuses it with meaning, energy and excitement. To take God out of the equation has the potential to deflate that excitement, or to bring a person to abandon Torah learning altogether. Again, it goes without saying that non-belief can negatively impact a person's Torah observance every bit as much as their learning.

The above of course begs the question: If being a believing Orthodox Jew gives one vital psychological, moral, and communal support, and makes one's connection to Torah and mitzvot more impassioned and secure, why tamper with a good thing? What's wrong with God? 

The short answer is that, I believe, we can do better. Judaism can do better. The longer answer comes next...

Introduction and a Word of Disclaimer

This book-blog is for you if:

  • You are religiously observant but do not accept the dogma.
  • You are not religiously observant for reasons of not wanting to accept the dogma.
  • You are an atheist who feels left out of Judaism.
  • You are ready to abandon observance because you feel intellectually squelched.
  • You are questioning, yet solid enough in your religious observance that the idea of a “Godless” Judaism would not bother you or dissuade you from being observant. 

This book-blog is NOT for you if:

  • You are a contented believer in the God of the Bible.
  • Your religious observance rests on faith in God.
  • You believe in the Torah as a historical, God-given, supernatural document.
  • You believe in God and are starting on the path of religious observance.
  • You are questioning, yet unsure whether the idea of a “Godless” Judaism would disturb you or dissuade you from being religiously observant.

Granted, anytime we pick up a book, read an article, talk to a friend, overhear a conversation, etc., we cannot help but be affected. This is why Pirkei Avot (1:7) warns us to distance ourselves from bad neighbors and associates; we are greatly influenced by our surroundings, and often in ways we cannot predict. So despite this disclaimer, there is no way of knowing how one will be affected by this writing, for good or for bad. I am however conscious of not wanting to be a "bad neighbor." I know these are sensitive issues, with the potential to change a person's life, and I do not wish to be an agent of harm to another person, even if it is inadvertant. So I ask potential readers to weigh carefully whether they believe it to be in their best interests to be exposed to this material, before proceeding.

My goal is not to shake people’s observance or their faith, nor to disturb their sense of well-being or their relationships with friends and loved ones. The "truth" component is not the only value to be considered. So is the upkeep of Jewish observance, and certainly so is the safeguarding of one's happiness and well-being. However, there are an increasing number of Jews in the religious community who cannot, and will not, believe in the dogma. Many feel that not only is their non-belief not a “shortcoming” on their part, but in fact a sign of mental health, of their desire to eschew idolatry (worship of falsity). Consequently, they see their non-belief as something to be cherished, to be encouraged, not branded as heresy. My hope is precisely that, to offer these people encouragement, and over time to help bring them back into the fold, as upstanding and idealistic members of the religious community.

The larger goal of this work is to help build a sustainable Judaism for the future. Because the tide of non-theism is inevitable; the trend of non-belief will only continue, and Judaism will have to relate to it, and eventually accommodate it. Initially, "atheodox" streams will understandably be deemed a threat to the religious community, and no doubt traditional believers will become even more vigilant, more dogmatic, less tolerant of non-belief, so as to protect other believers from its influence. My aim (and suggestion to others) is therefore not to attempt to proselytize. It is both unkind and counterproductive to hit believers over the head with atheism. Atheodoxy is something that is best spread organically, over time. I will say it again: The goal is not only truth but stability, and to deliberately shake people up is to erode stability. I do maintain that in the long run, a non-theistic track of observance is ultimately more stable, not less, than the theistic status quo. This book-blog is ultimately about creating the foundation for a stable, robust and viable Judaism, one that is capable of igniting the inspiration of Jews and non-Jews alike for many generations to come.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Atheodox Judaism: A "Book-Blog"

Having lived in the Orthodox world for many years, practicing as a religious Jew, learning Torah, and generally enjoying religious life - yet doing so without a belief God or the supernatural, I have often thought about whether we might simply go ahead and "remove" the God concept, like one might take away a set of training wheels, and simply let Judaism ride free, on its own. Would it cease to be Judaism? Would we lose the "glue" that holds Torah and the Jewish people together? Or would we in fact be all the better and stronger for it? Conventional wisdom, at least in the religious community, would argue the former, that it can't be done - and more to the point, it shouldn't be done. Not only is it heresy, not only would it shake people from their observance and cause the Jewish people to erode out of existence, but it would undermine the most central, sacred goal of Judaism - namely, to forge a relationship and connection with God. While I certainly grasp the gravity of this argument, I will attempt here to make a case to the contrary. Whether that case is compelling, readers can be the judge.

My initial idea was to write a book on the subject. However, when I got to thinking about what stores might (or might not) carry a book on "Atheodox Judaism," and what I might do, given my desire for anonymity, in such case as the book caused a stir and there might be a call for me to speak on the subject, and knowing the ill-effects that would have on my state of well-being and enjoyment of life, I decided to "publish" this book in blog-form. Mind you, I have several reservations about the blog medium. I find the "culture" of blogs (and in particular their comments) to all too often be very much wanting in the area of civility, respect and dignity - basic derech eretz. However, I do recognize that comments do much to give "life" to a blog, generating a mechanism for all-important feedback and discussion. For this reason I do plan to moderate comments, and in order to maintain a friendly and open atmosphere, will not post comments which I deem to be mean-spirited or otherwise meant to shame or demean people. Lastly, whereas with a book I can spend a week writing, then put it on the back burner for a month or two and come back to it later, with a successful blog the expectation is that one come out with new material regularly. I wish I could promise to do so, but I can't. So if you wish to follow this book-blog, you may want to subscribe to the blog and be notified at such time as I roll out a new post.

Of course a distinct advantage of a blog over a book is the fact that it is a "live" document, meaning I can go back, correct errors, add or take out material, and even change my mind - based on my own ruminations (which I hope will gain refinement over time) and also on discussion and feedback. The truth is I don't know exactly how this story will end. But I appreciate being able to undertake the journey together.

With that, a hearty welcome to all!