God is like democracy

For some, it's as hard to doubt that the One exists as that the other is the best political system.

kotel 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kotel 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I recently had lunch with a friend who is a serious Reform Jew. She's been thinking a lot about God lately, and since I'm Orthodox, she figured I was the right person to demonstrate to her that God exists. "But I hardly ever think about whether God exists. I just know that He does. It's how I grew up. I can recommend some books and Web sites tailored to people with doubts about God. But personally, it's not a question I struggle with." She was unsatisfied. She wanted to know, specifically, how I could personally justify God's existence. At what age, for example, did I first doubt that the universe had a creator? "Well, when did you first doubt whether democracy was a good system?" I asked. I meant the analogy precisely. Throughout my childhood, all my teachers, parents and rabbis behaved as if God certainly existed. I later learned that some of them weren't really believers, and I am eternally grateful they didn't share their doubts with me. Looking at the wondrousness of the world we live in, it has just seemed obvious to me that there's a creator. Similarly, she grew up watching her parents debate political issues and candidates and vote. From the time she was a small child, she learned about how the inhabitants of America once had a king, but that it's not good to have a king, no taxation without representation and all, and she has literally always believed in democracy, without ever seriously considering that any other system might be better. If she had been born in Moscow, it's entirely possible she would have grown up without ever seriously considering the possibility that democracy is good. But it's interesting that given that I'm her Orthodox friend, she feels that I need to prove God's existence to her - even though it has never been an issue in my life. SIMILARLY, I recently met with a friend who is a Holocaust professional. He knows that in my career as a modern Jewish historian I have studied, written and taught extensively about the murder of 6 million Jews. And yet I'm a ba'al teshuva (returnee to Orthodox Judaism), he pointed out. How do I reconcile the whole bad-things-happen-to-good-people problem? The answer, again, is I don't think about it much. Mostly, I think, because I have a historical mind, and so the many concerns I have about the Nazi era tend to relate to historical questions rather than theological ones. But Dennis Prager once said beautifully that believers have to explain unjust suffering, and nonbelievers have to explain everything else. I am aware that this issue - theodicy - is a serious theological problem, and I have heard the various explanations believers propose and find none wholly satisfying. But the solution that God doesn't exist creates so many other huge problems that I don't even consider it. With the success of the kiruv (Jewish outreach) movement, there's a perception among many Orthodox Jews - and many non-Orthodox as well - that all Orthodox Jews are on some level expected to be kiruv professionals. Now, certainly, we're all responsible for our own behavior and it would be wrong to model observant life in a way that reflects poorly on Torah Judaism. But nobody appointed me a kiruv professional. I do, however, know the books, organizations and Web sites I can point people to if they want a slick sales pitch on why there's a God and how we know that He wrote the Torah. But it's not fair for non-Orthodox Jews to demand that I, a non-rabbi, demonstrate to them that God exists while they stand on one foot. The question, however genuine, is also a little hostile. If a Chinese person asked them to explain why democracy was better than the Chinese system, they'd surely be unprepared to give a persuasive answer. I don't see how the challenge that I justify the divine presence in the universe is any different. The writer is a Ph.D. student in American Jewish history at New York University. [email protected]