God, Orthodox Judaism, And The Rabbis

John Updike wrote in his novel SEEK MY FACE: “Or perhaps, if she is Jewish, she is unable to put the question of God quite the way a Christian would put it, in urgent terms of either/or. For the chosen people, the relation has evolved beyond the possibility of dropped acquaintance into that of a familiarity that breeds contempt…”

Updike nails it. That’s exactly my experience of both faiths.

When I grew up as a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian, the son of a theologian, faith in God was the most important thing in the world. It was urgent. It transcended all other priorities. It was the most important way to divide people — believers and non-believers. Non-believers could not be trusted. They were headed for hell. Believers may not be good but they had a hope of being decent in this world, and besides, what happened in this world, aside from getting to the next world, was not that important.

I heard more sermons about faith in God aka righteousness by faith than in any other topic.

I’ve been in Jewish life for more than decade and never heard a sermon on righteousness by faith. I don’t think I’ve even heard a sermon on faith in God by a rabbi. I’ve heard sermons on being faithful to God’s commands but the focus is on action rather than belief.

I’ve never met a Jew who conveyed that it was urgent that I or anyone believe in God.

Growing up a Christian, I took faith in God for granted. What springs from such faith? What’s the result? What’s the dollar value? The most obvious answer is that you want to share the good news, but this never appealed to me after the age of nine. That was my dad’s mission.

So how then should you lead your life? You were supposed to make the best of things while waiting for Jesus to come back. It was good to study and work and to care for your family and to help other people but none of these things brought about your salvation. Only faith did that.

For me, then, faith in God didn’t lead me anywhere beyond a certain commitment to ethical behavior. It was pretty much the same for my peers too as almost all of them drifted out of the SDA Church. SDAs, like Reform Jews, rarely last beyond three generations.

The Judaic stress on action rather than belief was one of the things that attracted me to Judaism and led to my conversion. This made more sense to me than emphasizing faith.

Converting to Judaism was like cleansing my palate of the tastes I didn’t like from my childhood. When the rabbi pricked me (hatafat dam brit aka ritual circumcision), I felt like I was reborn.

It quickly turned out, however, that I took all of my patterns into and out of the mikveh. I just had to fit them into Jewish life.

I was focused on serving God until I gave in to female temptation in the summer of 1993 and scratching that itch dominated my next 16 years. Much of the time, it was more important to me than God.

Despite the best of my intentions, my remote relationship with my father and my intermittent relationship with my early mother figures, contaminated all of my relationships, even after I adopted Judaism. I generally kept people at arm’s length except to the extent they could tell me who I was, and I generally kept God at arm’s length.

Growing up, my dad and God were both the great sources of right and wrong. I couldn’t help relating to God the same way I related to my dad — with a mixture of fear, respect and trying to get away with what I could so I could do what I wanted without causing much drama in my home.

I don’t understand fully how God and my father are so inextricably related in my psyche but they are. My ambivalence about my dad hinders my relationship with God. I’ve never had much of a relationship with either my dad or with God or with 99% of the people in my life. There’s something terribly broken in me that a new religion couldn’t mend.

I stepped into synagogue life on a regular basis in 1993 and I was shocked by how little Jews talked about God. I understood that behavior was more important than belief but I was surprised to find it was considered gauche to question a Jew about his religious beliefs. They were considered a private matter and not terribly important. I don’t think I fully imbibed this until the last few years.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1994, I started hanging around Orthodox Jews on a regular basis for the first time and was surprised to find that they didn’t talk about God much. I think Harry Medved was the first one who said to me, “I’d be an Orthodox Jew even if there was no God. I like the lifestyle.”

I was staggered. Orthodox Judaism seemed so hard to me, there was no way I’d do it if I didn’t believe it was God’s command to the Jew.

As the years went by, I met more Orthodox Jews who echoed Harry’s sentiment, including Orthodox rabbis (who went into education rather than the pulpit).

These were mainly Modern Orthodox Jews who expressed this point of view. Traditional Orthodox Jews would face greater communal sanctions for saying such things.

I asked my Orthodox rabbi about this a few years ago and he said this group of Orthodox atheists is tiny. “The test if yom tov sheni,” he said. “Why would you keep that extra day of a Jewish holiday if you didn’t believe?”

A Modern Orthodox rabbi tells me today: “My sense is that this is statistically negligible. I think when you look for something you often find it? Do not want to sound too biased but with Reform or Conservative rabbis there is no surprise or story.”

“One thing that Rav Noah Weinberg did was to bring God into the conversation (and not just Halacha).”

Another Orthodox rav tells me: “I have known the phenomenon, for many people Orthodox Judaism is just the only way they know how to live.”

I’ve met many Reform and Conservative rabbis who were atheists. My sense is that they comprise at least 10% of their group. The leader of the University of Judaism rabbinics school, Bradley Shavit-Artson is an atheist.

A few years ago, I wrote about Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of Jewish theology at AJU:

So I was in my Orthodox shul Friday night with Dr. Dorff’s latest book, To Do The Right And Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics. And I read this: “Religion provides us…the transcendent (imaged in the Western World as God).”

“…[N]one of us can attain the vantage point that Judaism ascribes to God in His omniscience.”

Now, ascribes is a word intellectuals use to denote the beliefs of the uninformed masses. Ascribes implies that the writer, an intellectual, knows the truth beneath the ascribing. If the intellectual believed what was ascribed, he wouldn’t use the word ascribe.

In these sentences, it seems that Rabbi Dorff is not comfortable with proclaiming God’s omniscience but only that Rabbi Dorrff’s religion ascribes all-knowningness to this “God,” which is only the way the Western World images the transcendent.

YNETNEWS has an interesting article on rabbis, including Orthodox rabbis, who are atheists: “Most of them are still there because they love community life, their friends, the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer. Most of them are 40 and 50 years old – not exactly an easy age to start a ‘cultural emigration.’ Moreover, and that’s a very important parameter, most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood depends on their faith, even if just outwardly.”

Now, I’m not the most reliable observer. When I read this list of the top 100 traits of personality disordered individuals, I saw I had at least 50 of them. I shiver at the ways I’ve gone off course.

It was easy for me to come back to God in my 20s. I had a God-intoxicated upbringing, which I rejected at age 18 and went into the world. When I got sick at age 22, I twisted in the wind until turning back to God in December of 1989. I decided to embrace the Jewish approach to God as articulated by Dennis Prager.

It was easy. I could reject the God of my father, but embrace the best parts of the God I was raised with and reject the god who became flesh and died on a cross and demands that you believe in him. Instead, the God of Judaism cared most about behavior, and rewarded all good people in the afterlife, irrespective of their belief or lack of belief. This I could get behind.

Life became less lonely for me when I turned to this God. It infused my small deeds with great meaning.

When I lived in Orlando in 1993-1994 and attended Conservative synagogues, I used to push Jews about their theological beliefs. I remember I heard this Conservative rabbi give over his atheist philosophy and afterward I went up to him and challenged him on how he could be a rabbi with this lack of belief in God, and this older wiser rabbi in the room sent my girlfriend to pull me away.

My first few years in Jewish life, I talked all the time about my conversion to Judaism. My attraction at the time was primarily theoretical. I liked what I read and heard about Judaism. It made sense to me. I was focused on its beliefs on the primacy of action but I hadn’t fully imbibed them. I was unhinged at times. I was all passion and noise but not terribly observant nor ethical. When I’d run up against people who were far more knowledgeable and observant than I, but also quieter and less evangelical, I was rocked the way unstable people are when they encounter the real thing.

The man who most influenced my journey into Judaism was the talkshow host Dennis Prager, and until 2001, when I began to take Orthodox Judaism more seriously, I sounded like a poor man’s Dennis Prager when I talked about Jewish life.

As the years rolled by, I grew quieter in shul to the extent that I eventually stopped proclaiming or fighting for any type of belief. Life shows you what you’re good at and life has shown me that I’m not a good advocate.

I remember going to dinner with a hot sarcastic Persian in 1999. She was just my type. I told her about my conversion to Judaism and the primary topic of my writing and she said, “God told you to do that, right?”

I felt silly. How had I wandered so far off the path?

As the years rolled by from my conversion to Judaism, the less and less I thought about God. He’s not much of a factor in the Orthodox Judaism (as it is lived, not in the theory and text) I know. Torah is the religious Jewish obsession (and for some, it’s also the state of Israel and the well-being of the people Israel). Few Orthodox Jews are atheists but in regular conversation, God is absent aside from Baruch HaShem incantations. It’s a dramatic change from my Christian upbringing. I can’t remember when I last had a conversation with a Jew about God. I’m not sure that has ever happened for me except in the circumstance when the Jew was eager to tell me he does not believe in God. In theory, 12-step work is God intoxicated but there’s an ethos in much of it that I have known that it is not cool to talk much about God. So let’s talk about God. What has God done in your life?

I feel more of a sense of God at Yosemite or Big Sur or in a black church (and I have no distinctly Christian beliefs, that’s the religion I left) than in almost all shuls I’ve attended. I get my religious highs in Jewish life when the rabbi teaches Tanya or davening at the Happy Minyan or Friday Night Life at Sinai Temple and SSW’s Mountaintop Minyan in my skirt-chasing days.

Though the Jews I know, including Orthodox Jews, don’t talk much about God in regular conversation, at least when we study about God, we always do it with text in the original languages of the Bible with a teacher who is literate in Hebrew, etc. Growing up as a Seventh-Day Adventist, almost none of the teachers and preachers I endured (many had PhDs and were regarded as scholars) were fluent in Hebrew yet they all felt qualified to stake their lives and our lives on what the text meant, even though fewer than 1% could read it in the original.

I’m learning to act like someone who’s lived his whole life as an Orthodox Jew. I come late to shul, talk business on Shabbos, stay seated during the Amidah to argue a point about internet commerce, and get regularly shushed by zealots who claim that my discussion of monetizing blogging disturbs their recitation of the kaddish.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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