To believe or not to believe

What do any of us know about God? Very little.

praying 88 (photo credit: )
praying 88
(photo credit: )
What do any of us know about God? Very little. The Shema, the basis of our belief, is extremely minimalistic. It teaches that there is only one divinity in the world and that divinity is the one Moses encountered, identified as "I am that I am" - the one who is and exists and causes all else to exist. We have no picture of God and no statue of God - nor can we have a verbal picture of God. The Jewish concept of God is a liberating one because it does not burden us with descriptions that are limiting and contrary to common sense and scientific knowledge. We have no myths about God, no "life" of God. The Torah tells us of the interaction of God and humanity and of God's desires for human conduct, but little about the essence of God. The qualities that the Torah assigns to God are those of mercy and justice. Judaism asserts that God is and that God is good and just. Maimonides went so far as to say that all we can say about God is in the negative. Indeed God's goodness and justice are sometimes difficult to accept when we see the world around us and the things that happen in it. Positing only the one God, Judaism has always had difficulty explaining evil in the world. I was reminded of this when I recently read an interview with the former Supreme Court president Aaron Barak. When asked if he believed in God he said, "I do not believe that God exists. In my view the Holocaust is irreconcilable with the existence of God." I am sure that he is not the only one. The presence of such evil in the world makes belief in God - at least in a good God - difficult. These problems indeed raise questions that must be dealt with and they may even cause us to refine our concept of God, but they do not disprove God's existence. I believe it was Elie Wiesel, a man certainly acutely aware of the Holocaust, who was reputed to have said, "I can believe in God. It is much harder to believe in man." Given the concept of free will we need not ascribe the Holocaust to God but to human beings who defy God's will. Atheism is more prevalent in our age than ever before. It is the result of many things. The Holocaust, the ultimate evil, is only one of them. Science has taught us that much that we took for granted is not so. It makes it difficult for us - if not impossible - to believe that every event of nature is the result of the immediate will of God. Miracles - in the sense of supernatural events that contradict the laws of nature - have been brought into question. But the mistake atheists make is that they assume that belief in God must be equated with ancient ideas of God they cannot accept rather than admitting that we can build on past traditions and create concepts of God that are more acceptable to the modern mind. Einstein was no slouch and he was able to find a concept of God that was acceptable to him even while rejecting some traditional ideas. "God does not play dice with the universe," he said. Rabbi Milton Steinberg, a prominent theologian, wrote that the universe is dynamic, creative, rational and purposive and contains consciousness: "The entire universe is the outward manifestation of Mind-Energy, of Spirit, or to use the older and better word, of God." It may be possible to dispute Steinberg's claim, but it certainly seems plausible. When one considers the wonder of the universe in which we live, a wonder that becomes greater and greater as we explore the extent of the universe, when one considers the wonders of the human mind and human creativity, the idea that there is no intelligence in the world other than our own seems implausible. In other words, there is reason to believe but we do not believe because of reason, but rather because of our feelings and experiences. To quote Steinberg again, "If the believer has his troubles with evil, the atheist has more and graver difficulties to contend with. Reality stumps him altogether, leaving him baffled not by one consideration, but by many, from the existence of natural law through the instinctual cunning of the insect to the brain of the genius and heart of the prophet. This then is the intellectual reason for believing in God: that though this belief is not free from difficulties, it stands out head and shoulders, as the best answer to the riddle of the universe." In view of all we know today about the world and all the scientific knowledge that we have, what is needed is a concept of God that is great enough to encompass the magnificence of the universe in which we live. In place of a God who acts upon the world in "supernatural" ways, in defiance of natural law, we must conceive of a God manifested in the evolution of the universe and of humanity, working through the forces of history and human nature in a much more complex way than we might have previously thought. God does not change, but our understanding of God changes with the growth of knowledge. An understanding that does not grow can lead to misunderstanding and to rejection of the idea of the existence of God. Given the choice between accepting the existence of God even though much cannot be explained or understood, and rejecting it, thus leaving the complexity of the universe and the existence of life and consciousness unexplained, I believe that the former is the more acceptable. In the end neither science nor logic can offer incontrovertible proof. They cannot disprove the existence of God but neither can they prove it. In the end, it always comes down to a matter of belief - to our reaction to the wonders of the universe and of life itself - not to reason but to belief that is not contrary to reason but rises above it. Indeed - to believe or not to believe - that is the question. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.