Does what we believe about God matter?


The SFGate web site published an interview with Shalom Auslander, a former Orthodox Jew and author of the book Foreskin's Lament. As the headline for the article says, Auslander "left Judaism but God came with him." Which is to say that he is not practicing the faith anymore, but he still has at some level a belief in God--or at least some kind of God, a remnant of his upbringing that he cannot shake. He seems unable to move beyond some of the conceptions of Divinity that he came to believe in his childhood--conceptions that are one-sidedly negative. Whether that is the fault of the Orthodox brand of faith he was taught, or just his own imagination, is not something I can say; I am hardly an expert on Judaism, and even less so on Orthodox Judaism. But regardless of what led him to hold onto this negative concept of God that he can't shake loose from, he doesn't seem to have evolved his theology beyond that level. For him, first and foremost, God is simply One to be feared. And he sees organized religion as an inevitable expression of this Divine negativity. For example, he says,

I appreciate having been raised with the idea that there is something beyond us, though I do wish that thing wasn't a violent psychopath. I like the idea that this — my TV, my Xbox, my car, my house — is not all there is. When I speak with or hear from or read sensible people who are becoming interested in religion, what I hear most of all is a longing for that, a sense that their lives would be better, or fuller, with something to live for beyond the 2008 BMWs. So they go to church or join a synagogue, and I don't blame them. But then the upward spiral of belief begins, and three weeks later they're trying to convert me and refusing to eat in my home, and three months later they want to start a war. It's an awful shame that we haven't come up with something better.
While I see the humor in that remark, I can't help but wonder what circles he travels in if everyone he meets who discovers religion of one sort or another becomes intolerant or militant about their faith. As far as the idea that God is to be feared, this comment of his is rather telling in response to whether he has ever questioned the existence of God:
Intellectually, sure. And, intellectually, it makes no sense. Not to me, anyway. But I can't get the guy out of my head. I would love to. All I know of God is brutality and vengeance; somehow, the idea of a kind and loving God seems even more difficult for me to believe. Too easy, I guess. But I'd love to have a weekend with my wife, a nice hotel room, a bag full of ecstasy and the certainty of an atheist that nobody is watching.
All he knows of God is brutality and vengeance? Where did he get that idea from? I may not be an expert on Judaism, but I am pretty sure that this is not an accurate depiction of how most faithful Jews view God.

Auslander clearly does have a sense of humor. For example, he rebelled against his faith in one way by eating nonkosher food, and when asked, "Did you enjoy this food, or was this more about rebelling against your upbringing?" he replied,
If you've ever had a Slim Jim, I think you know whether I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it about as much as I enjoyed the explosive diarrhea that followed. But I was alive, dammit. I was alive!
Meanwhile, one of his more serious comments came in response to the question about the difference between being "observant" and being "religious":
Observance has to do with physical acts. Anyone can do those. I can light Sabbath candles, wear a yarmulke, fast on the Day of Atonement and never once think about God. I have known people who do just that. I, personally, am not observant. Being religious, I think, is being aware of God — thinking, struggling, wondering. In that regard, though he arrives at an atheistic conclusion, Richard Dawkins is religious — I'd bet he thinks about God at least as much as the Pope does. I might skip the candles, uncover my head and have a cheeseburger on the Day of Atonement, but I think about God non-stop. There is a small part of me that hopes that if there has to be a God, and if He has to watch what we're doing here on Earth, and if He must come to some conclusion about us when we die, I hope that awareness — even in the form of doubt or questioning — trumps rote observance any day.
I feel that the importance of rituals isn't so much inherent in those actions per se, but rather in the attitude that one brings to those rituals. Rituals are, I think, just tools for connecting people with transcendence and holiness, but they have to be treated respectfully in order to serve that purpose. Additionally, my view is that our actions toward our fellow humans should trump either awareness of God or rote observance. I think that rote observance--regardless of whether you are an observant Jew who eats kosher, or a Christian who takes communion, or a Muslim who prays facing Mecca, or whatever--is all great as a means of experiencing the Divine in the particular way that is offered by one's faith. But unless you express your faith in a way that translates meaningfully into how you treat other people, I have to wonder what the point is. As much as I think Richard Dawkins is arrogantly mistaken in his views about religion, my feeling is that God doesn't give a rip about Dawkins's opinions on theology or how much he is "aware" of the concept of God, but God does care how Dawkins treats other people in his life. And I think the same goes for all of us, not just individually, but how we treat others in society as a whole. Religion at its best has a transformative power to orient our souls towards something greater than ourselves. At its worst, it plagues us with negativity and narrow-mindedness. As for the rituals that are part of religious practice, as the prophet Amos said,
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Auslander is caught in a religious no-man's land, between religious practice and religious faith. What is left is a kind of useless vestigial religion, one that he doesn't practice but which still haunts him. Fortunately for him, he is able to use this condition as a source of humor, and he was able to write a book about it. For his sake, though, I would hope that at some point he is able to leave the no-man's land and find a place of comfort, whatever that might mean for him in terms of beliefs or lack of beliefs about God.


Yael said...

I wrote a comment which went into the cyber black hole so let me try again....

I read the interview. It's interesting to me the different paths people take as a result of similar upbringings. I was raised fundie Christian with many of the same views of a psycho God. We didn't have all the rules of Orthodox Judiasm, but we had plenty of our own! I couldn't escape God either, no matter what. I was repulsed by what I knew of God, but I still felt a pull to God.

Eventually that led me to my rabbi's office as I studied with him for conversion to Judaism. One day I made some offhand comment about God and Rabbi asked me what I thought about God then. I told him I wanted God to stay far enough away so God couldn't hit me. The next question was obvious. Why was I even there? I told Rabbi I had to believe there was more to it all than what I knew. And we went on from there.

I was 43 at that time, this guy is only 37. Maybe somewhere along the way he'll make peace with all of this as well. He'll probably be sitting in some pastor's office though....Which is too bad. Orthodox Judaism can really distort a beautiful tradition. I would not live that life because I just don't think living a meaningful life is about counting how many steps I take in the morning before saying a blessing.

Observance can be a tough thing to get a handle on as you might have read on my blog. There has to be some balance between the ritual and the ethical. I consider both of great value but only if they're connected in some way.

I wrote a post last year about people who lose their religions and fall into the abyss. This guy still is bothered by God on a certain level so I don't think he's gone that route.

People ending up on such different paths....God, religion, Judaism, it is all so complex and yet so fascinating.

Mystical Seeker said...

Yael, I liked what you wrote in "The Abyss". I think that some of us wrestle with God, others fall into the Abyss. Some who leave their childhood religion behind become resentful and bitter, others become haunted and caught in a sort of limbo (like Shalom Auslander), and others find a new home. It is complicated.

I think it is unfortunate that fundamentalist thinking (Christian or Jewish or whatever) can screw with people's spiritual psychology long after they've left their childhood behind.