Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Thoughts On the Need (or not) For God

I participate on the Reconstructionist email list. Recently there was a thread about "Why practice Judaism, if you don't believe that God commanded the mitzvoth?" Here is an edited version of a response I posted.

> My point was dealing with beliefs in God, what that says about whether there is any meat in Judaism as a religion.

Why does "meat" depend on belief in God? Judaism has always been weak on "theology" and, Maimonides notwithstanding, never had a commonly accepted creed. So why not a world-view that rejects a conscious god capable of literally commanding us. A traditional definition of the balanced Jewish consciousness included love of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people), Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), and Torat Yisrael (the Jewish Bible, or more broadly Jewish teachings.) No god mentioned there.

> Doesn't removing God mean there is no religion left in Judaism.

a) who said Judaism was a religion? For Reconstructionists it is a 'religious civilization". It is both more and less than a "religion". It contains literature (including the Bible), philosophy, history, music, food, politics, jokes... These need not be, and in fact are definitely not - logically coherent. It is a RELIGIOUS civilization because a major (perhaps essential) characteristic of this civilization is its obsession with religious issues - ethics, meaning, self-improvement (spirituality for some), transcendence of time (the after-life for some), etc....

> May question is why perform non-moral, non-humanitarian mitzvah if you do not believe in God.

At least three reasons.

One: they are what Mordecai Kaplan called "Sancta" - basically consecrated folkways. Every civilizations has these. The U.S. has Thanksgiving , the 4th of July, and the Superbowl. Jews have Pesach, Israeli Independence Day, and ... (well I guess there is no equivalent to the Superbowl). So part of the reason we have a seder is - just like Thanksgiving - to over eat with our family and friends. Americans do Halloween because its fun. Many Jews do Sukkot for the same reason. Nothing wrong with that. In fact these Sancta are needed to create and maintain a common sense of peoplehood, common points of reference, a common civilization. They remind us that we are part of that civilization.

Two: they can teach us ethical lessons (e.g. Passover -> identify with the "stranger"; Birkhot HaShacar -> help the poor; ...)

Three: they can be good for our psyche (spirit / soul) (e.g . they teach us discipline, humility, self-reflection, hopefulness, gratitude...)

* * *

I personally believe that for many years there had been too much of an emphasis on the first reason above, and too little on the other two. The first reason only motivates you if you are already committed to Judaism ( i.e. a Jewish civilization.) The last two, on the other hand, might give you reasons to want to be committed to that civilization. But the last two can also be controversial. There are differing and often radical ethical or spiritual lessons that can be drawn. Too many Rabbis and too may congregation have been afraid to openly deal with these issues (or at least deal with them deeply) lest they be divisive. (My own congregation is guilty of this as well.) Its also a big topic in itself: one that I don't have time to explore fuller right now, but one I would love to have others pick up on.


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