On denying and defending God
My earliest memory of doubt regarding God was as a kid of about 10. As the son and grandson of Orthodox rabbis, my existential moment was not about whether there was a God, though, but rather why He wasn’t doling out more punishment.
As I recall, one of my less observant friends was visiting my house on a Shabbat afternoon, and while we were playing in my room he flicked on the light switch. Having long been taught that such acts were forbidden on the Sabbath, I immediately cringed, waiting for a bolt of lightning to come down from the heavens and strike him.
But nothing happened.
And after a moment or two, I was not only confused but also somewhat disappointed. After all, if my friend could turn on a light on Shabbat and get away with it, what if … ?
That was about as far as I could get in contemplating my own possible actions. I later told my dad about this remarkable nonincident and asked why nothing dramatic had happened from on high. I don’t recall the exact answer, but the gist of it was that God does not always reward and punish us on the spot, or even in ways that we can understand immediately.
And so I was introduced to the land of faith, doubt, mystery and wonder — and the struggles therein — that have been with me ever since.
And of course I am not alone.
“In the end, the existence of God is the only true problem in which all other problems are subsumed and minimized,” Nobel Peace laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel told Antonio Monda for the filmmaker’s book, “Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion.”
“At times,” Wiesel continued, “I think that we are always talking about God without realizing it.”
But discussions about religion that used to be relegated to seminaries and houses of worship have, in the wake of 9/11, become the most important issue here and around the world. The attack on America by Islamic militants shocked many of us into recognizing that, like it or not, we were engaged in a battle for our Western values against those who would destroy our culture in the name of Allah.
The horror of those religious zealots killing thousands of innocent Americans led to what Anthony Gottlieb, writing in The New Yorker last year, called “an outbreak of militant atheism, at least on bookshelves,” with several best-sellers that focused on what the authors believe are “the fatal dangers of all religious faith.”
He noted that the “most articulate and the angriest of the lot” was Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religions Poison Everything,” a fiery treatise asserting that religion distorts and endangers the world. “God did not make us,” writes the British-born journalist and essayist. “We made God.”
In response, and noting how disturbed he is by what he calls “the new atheists,” David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (and Jewish Week “Musings” columnist), has written a thoughtful and compelling book. “Why Faith Matters” makes the case for the many positive values of religion in modern life. And while his theology will not satisfy those who take the Bible literally, his personal experiences in dealing with suffering and fear — he and his wife have battled cancer — deepen Wolpe’s credibility when he writes of the comfort and power of prayer.
In preparing to moderate what promises to be a lively Jewish Week-sponsored debate between Hitchens and Rabbi Wolpe on “Is Religion Good For The World?” Oct. 29 at Temple Emanuel, I read the books back-to-back and was keenly aware of how different the authors seem, not only in matters of faith, but in terms of history, humanity and temperament.
Hitchens is as angry as he is witty, lumping all religions together as the evil cause of untold death and destruction over centuries, not to mention the source of needless fear and guilt among us, from an early age. Born to a Jewish mother, he seems to have a special dislike of circumcision as unhealthy and creating untold misery, though medical experts tell us otherwise. And worst is the holiday of Chanuka, which he sees as a celebration of zealotry (the warrior Maccabees) over humanity (the sophisticated Hellenists), paving the way for Christianity and Islam — a religion he skewers more than any other.
Rabbi Wolpe, by contrast, employs a compassionate, embracing tone, even when he is countering the writings of Hitchens and others. He emphasizes the good works that religious people do every day with little fanfare. And his thesis, as a Conservative rabbi’s son who became an atheist as a boy — and remained one for some years — is that faith is not about logic but about an approach to life. “Increasingly, I was less concerned with what God might be,” he writes, “than what faith in God might make of me.”
I came away from these two books appreciating Hitchens’ highly tuned distaste for hypocrisy and his ability to express his contempt for religiously motivated violence. And I found Rabbi Wolpe’s gentle prose and vivid imagery inspiring, as well as his sense of humility in the face of what remains the unknown.
I look forward to hearing the two men debate and to seeing how they respond to each other and to questions from the audience. Maybe someone will ask them what a believing youngster is to make of a God who demands obedience, yet seems not to respond to the electric light that fills a room on a Shabbat afternoon.
(Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)