8 Tamuz 5774
I’m working my way through Leonard Epstein’s book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism for the next few weeks. In this book, Epstein gives us a chapter on some topic, and then some exercises at the end of the chapter for the reader to think about. He doesn’t number his exercises at the ends of his chapters, so sometimes it’s a little hard to figure out if a sentence is an exercise to write about or just something to think about. For example, Epstein asks us at the end of Chapter 2 to “Consider what is at stake in your beliefs. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put this very well: “[G-d] is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.”
Hm. OK. I’m not sure how to parse that, especially with the Heschel quote attached. Since the chapter is about G-d, Epstein probably means our beliefs about G-d. But as a former agnostic/atheist (and even now I’m not sure which of those I used to be), it’s hard to even put my beliefs about G-d into words, let alone talk about the stakes of those beliefs. I know what I used to believe. Now, the only thing I can be sure I believe is that G-d is there, somehow, and that a lot of what I used to think about him isn’t true.
I don’t know what Epstein means when he says “what is at stake in your beliefs.” Does he mean Pascal’s wager? Does he mean what people might do to me if they find out what I believe? Some other stake that I can’t discern yet? I’m at a loss.
So I’ll just address those two things and move on.
Pascal’s wager is that if we believe in G-d, there’s a chance we’re wrong. If we believe and we’re wrong, we simply die when we die, there is no afterlife, and there is no reward. But if we do not believe and we’re wrong, then we end up in Hell. Meanwhile, if we believe and we’re wrong, nothing happens to us, but if we believe and we’re right, then we end up in Heaven. So it’s better to believe than not believe.
But Pascal was talking to Christians, not to Jews. Does the wager even apply to Jews? Since Jews do not believe in the afterlife or in hell, and since Judaism is largely based on what you do rather than your statements of belief, it’s kind of hard to apply Pascal’s wager to Judaism. Besides, I’ve always felt that believing in G-d only because you were afraid of what would happen to you if you didn’t believe in him seems kind of dishonest, and that G-d would see through that in a heartbeat.
However, on a more pragmatic level, there are certainly things at stake in my belief in G-d and my performance of that belief through Jewish practice. On a very mundane level, it means giving up Saturdays as a day when I work and catch up on things, which for me is a pretty big deal. It means that sometimes I will make people uncomfortable when they see my kippah or my Mogen David, or when they see me praying the brachot at mealtimes (although I generally do that sotto voce; it’s my conversation with G-d, not theirs). It means that I may lose friends and even family members when I finish my coming-out process later this month. And it means that I will be a target for violence, because there are plenty of people who don’t like Jews, even today in this supposedly enlightened age.
On a less pragmatic level, the things that I risk in my belief in G-d include the stuff I’ve already talked about having to let go of: empiricism as a solution to every problem, black-and-white answers, suspicion and mistrust.
So what’s really at stake? Pragmatically, it’s my time, my energy, possibly my social relationships, and (in the worst case) my safety. Emotionally, I risk having to admit I’m wrong, having to get good with doubt, and having to change my perspective on the world.
So why risk that, you ask?
Well, in a pragmatic sense, many of the things about being a Jew (which will be the public face of my belief in G-d) that will make me a target are no different than the things about being queer that make me a target. People who hate tend to hate all groups that aren’t just like them. The KKK doesn’t have a Log Cabin KKK group, for example. They hate on Jews and queers pretty much the same way. As far as my belief in G-d specifically making me a target, I expect it’ll mostly be from the die-hard atheists who can’t tolerate other people believing in G-d for the same reasons I used to be unable to tolerate it. But even then, atheists rarely rise to the vitriolic level of a Richard Dawkins or a Greta Christina, and if they do, I can simply ignore them, as hard as that may be.
Taking this a step closer to my own personal life, as far as the atheist friends who demand sameness of belief or nonbelief as a condition of friendship? Well, it was nice knowing them. As the saying says, “Sometimes people come into your life for a reason or a season, not a lifetime.” I have already (probably) lost one friend over this, and I’m just hoping I won’t lose more, but if I do, it’s not that different from when I came out as queer.
So maybe the reason that it’s hard to parse Epstein’s question is because there is nothing new under the sun here for me. Almost everything that I have to face from other people’s reactions is the same stuff I had to face when I came out as queer. This is not my first rodeo. The things at stake that happen internally? That’s stuff I’ve been considering even before I started this blog. Could I maintain my self-respect after admitting I’d been wrong? Could I see myself as intelligent when I still have doubt? Could I accept non-empirical evidence and not think of myself as a fraud?
As it turns out, yes, I can.
But then there’s the other half of Epstein’s exercise, the Heschel quote. In many of the other books I’ve been reading, there’s this presumption that G-d is central to everything in Jewish life. And I can see that it must be for those who are Orthodox and even, to some extent, Conservative. But I’m not in the habit of praying before everything I do and everything I think. I don’t know if there’s a way to make G-d central when I’m at one of my medieval events, for example, except through my practices – avoiding lashon hara, being kind, being considerate.
Is that enough? Must I become a fundamentalist to be a good Jew?
I reject that. While Heschel has wonderful things to say, I don’t think the idea of G-d as an on-off switch is compatible with my Yiddishkeit. I do not think that it’s possible to allow for doubt if G-d must be of supreme importance all the time. I do not think it’s possible to allow for argument and debate if G-d is of supreme importance all the time. I think that in my experience of Judaism to date, it’s been about people – how you treat other people – far more than about G-d being central. And even some writers have said that it’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than to do the wrong thing for the right reason.
That also calls the question of what it means to make G-d central to everything. Is it professing continuous belief in G-d that makes him central? Or is it behaving towards others with kindness, giving them the benefit of the doubt, avoiding lashon hara that makes G-d central?
I’d say that as a person who aspires to become a Jew, my answer would have to be that it’s the practice, not the profession, that makes G-d central.