Book Review: Getting our godliness back

Shay’s charming, thoughtful, thought-provoking new book required even more chutzpah.

SCOTT SHAY has also recruited some non-Jewish theologians, whose insights ‘deepen his book - and broaden his platform.’  (photo credit: JIM ATHERTON/TNS)
SCOTT SHAY has also recruited some non-Jewish theologians, whose insights ‘deepen his book - and broaden his platform.’
(photo credit: JIM ATHERTON/TNS)
I spent the holidays with Scott Shay, banker extraordinaire, visionary Jewish community leader, provocative author – and truth seeker. True, he was in Manhattan while I was in Jerusalem. And we’ve actually only met three times. But his latest book, In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism, is so personal and accessible that while reading it, you feel you’re communing with him – and Him!
I first “met” Shay in 2007, when I devoured his bold manifesto Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry. I remember being impressed by a Jewish community insider – a Wall Street banker for God’s sake – speaking candidly and courageously. Perhaps most dramatically, he declared that if, as an investor, he saw a company bleeding clients at the rate that Jews were abandoning Conservative Judaism, he’d advise: Shut it down!
Shay’s charming, thoughtful, thought-provoking new book required even more chutzpah. He’s writing for God’s sake, defending the Deity in a world that worships the New Atheist writers instead. Rather than simply embracing some mysterious prime mover, some watered-down Big Banger people could more easily accept, Shay doubles down. He bravely champions the Bible’s politically incorrect, supposedly wrathful, unreasonable, choosing-only-one-people, Jewish God.
The New Atheists “condemn belief in God, the Bible and religion” as “irrational” and “immoral,” Shay explains. He knows they seem to be winning the intellectual battle. In his world – as chairman of the highly respected (not just profitable) Signature Bank – he often gets reactions essentially saying, “You seem like such a reasonable fellow, so how is it that you buy all this God stuff? Please don’t tell me you believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, too?”
Shay’s full-throated defense of “this God stuff” advances four overlapping arguments. First, it’s “as rational to be a monotheist as to be an atheist.” This argument is the easiest. All Shay must prove is that doubts haunt both camps. He admits there’s no absolute scientific proof God exists – but none that God doesn’t exist either. After all, who truly knows the unknowable? Amid such uncertainty, Shay prefers building his life following the jurisprudence of his favorite game, baseball: Ties go to the runner. Why not give God the benefit of the doubt?
This sets up the book’s main argument, that believing in God is good – for individuals and societies. Civilization took one of its greatest leaps forward when Abraham smashed those idols. Idolatry, the “deification of a finite being, idea or thing poses many social, political and intellectual dangers.” Belief in an infinite, mysterious, morally-demanding God is humbling and liberating. It frees humans from worshiping systems like totalitarianism or being addicted to idolatry’s two great toxins – “untampered greed and lust for power.”
Unlike most academics, Shay makes sophisticated arguments digestible. First, appreciate the grounding power of God’s mysteries. Grasp the ethical boost we get by seeing ourselves as being made in God’s image. Fear idolatry’s evils. Then, voila, you can appreciate that the religious texts, especially the Bible,“are a vital part of any conversation about creating a better human future.”
Shay shows how much humans benefited from the Bible – and how much we lost by abandoning it. Finally, he proves that the biblical God “is consistent with evidence available to us” – as long as you read parts as poetic.
To refute the New Atheists, Shay cleverly recruited some non-Jewish theologians. Their insights deepen his book – and broaden his platform, showing that the biblical God belongs to everyone, not just Jews.
Obviously, a modern defense of God better address evil, especially the Holocaust. In a moving, characteristically subtle passage, Shay describes how his father’s card game with other Holocaust survivors once erupted in a tense debate over going to synagogue during the High Holidays. Many participated in synagogue rituals, but few prayed. They “knew that He existed... knew, for sure that ‘hidden miracles’ had delivered them to Chicago.” Yet they remained too furious “to show Him the courtesy of speaking to Him,” Shay explains. “I don’t think there was a hint of certainty on either side of the relationship. I think God knew why these survivors were so angry, and He understood why they gave Him the silent treatment.”
Although Shay acknowledges that prayer and faith can “improve our relationships and transform the world,” his God is more ethical and communal than spiritual, transcendent. It’s a more New-York-banker-friendly God than swami-friendly, helping us anchor daily lives in morality and meaning.
Although I enjoyed reading this hefty volume cover to cover, I also wish it were shorter – to reach more readers. The first part on fighting idolatry offers the freshest, most compelling, message that our next generation needs. Perhaps it should be published separately.
Still, I commend Getting our Groove Back’s author for elegantly and eloquently showing how to start getting our God – and even more important our godliness – back.
The writer, recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea. A distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.