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Am I a believer?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2007-04-13

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

It is a fundamental of most religions that there is a God who has created and runs our universe.

But, in the bible, which really is a book about God and His intervention in human affairs, there is no actual command that is worded, ‘You must believe in God.’ And in a way this makes wonderful sense. You can encourage people to believe certain things. You can suggest. But you cannot in any meaningful way command thought, can you? And if people say ‘I believe’, how can you ever know if they mean it or not? Besides, exactly what is it that you have to believe to pass the test? If God is without material form, if as Maimonides says you can only know what God is not, then what exactly are you believing in? Remarkably the Hebrew word for belief, Emunah, means to be convinced, or certain. Now that is a very different mental state to belief. ‘I know it is raining’ is very different to ‘I believe it is raining.’

I remember, as a sixteen-year-old, daring to ask in yeshiva, what if I was not sure if I believed in God or not? And the very understanding Mashgiach (Spiritual Director), Rabbi Volbe, Z”L, told me not to worry, it would sort itself out in time! Since then I have often encountered Jews who have told me that they adhere to Jewish Law and Custom without being at all convinced that God exists and, of course, far more who neither adhere to Jewish religious traditions nor even give God a second thought.

The question that interests me is ‘What if you are uncertain?’ Does this mean you cannot be a religious Jew? I think you can. All authorities in Judaism agree that even if you discard or disregard certain laws or traditions you should not therefore abandon the lot. What is more, a heretic according to the Talmud, is either someone who totally rejects the Jewish people or someone who denies its fundamentals as a matter of principle, rather than convenience, weakness or uncertainty. The Talmud was clearly less concerned with theological correctness than we are today.

What changed was, of course, the Christian preoccupation with belief, and then more recently the Enlightenment when for the first time God came under really serious assault and Judaism began to face attrition through assimilation rather than oppression. In the old days, you believed in or accepted the idea of God because you were afraid you would be struck by lightening or burn in Hell or face a Heavenly Tribunal. As we began to lose such fears the brilliant thinker Blaise Pascal suggested that logically we should believe in God because if He didn’t exist what difference would it make, but if He did we’d look pretty silly in the next world (if there is one, but again why not cover your bets?). But this is hardly what I would call a religious position.

Apparently 90% of Americans believe in God. But, in my experience, if you try to find out what people actually do believe you get some very peculiar answers. Had you stopped Tevye the Milkman on his way home on a Friday night and asked him if he believed in God, of course he’d have said yes, without thinking. He would not have been able to give you a Maimonidean proof or define his terms! This is why we have the concept of ‘Simple Belief’. Some people seem more easily persuadable. Some people seem more naturally spiritual. Not everyone is a philosopher. It does seem that God can be encountered or understood on many different levels. So does belief in God mean ‘to everyone according to his or her level of understanding’? If so, then clearly when lots of people say they believe in God they cannot all be meaning the same thing!

Nevertheless, declaring a belief in God does keep ones mind and senses open to more possibilities than if it is shut out completely. It leaves the door open.  And this is where mysticism comes in useful.

A huge measure of human activity is not based on logic at all, but love and emotions to start with. We often base our activities on senses and I believe we have a sense that can detect the Divine. Some call it the soul. Mysticism takes the view that God is to be experienced, not through logic. It is true that senses can mislead. We often ‘see’ things that aren’t there or think we hear things when we don’t. But they also provide us with a great deal that really matters. We do need logic to examine and evaluate our experiences, but that is once we actually have something to analyse. The beauty of religious practice is that it exposes one to possibilities and opportunities for intangible, mystical experiences. And then if you are fortunate enough to feel something, God becomes not a theory or an abstraction but a reality.

Now what if you have no such reality? Well, you could give up--that would be a shame, like my giving up piano practise for football, which I now too late regret. Or you could expose yourself to continued religious experience in the hope that things will clarify, or that one day you will recognize that you are encountering something Divine. And this is I why I would argue that even without a belief in God at this moment one should lead a religious life.

We have just come through an intense festival. It worked on two tracks, the historical, national group experience and the personal private encounter with our spiritual side. Some people are fortunate enough to relate to both. But even if God was not in everyone’s minds, being exposed to these different strands will have either added something new and richer to ones palette of experience or at the very least will have allowed for the possibility. Potential surely is a plus!

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