Monday, August 11, 2008

God - Part 2. Refocusing the Question, not Redefining the Terms.

My last post on God was unclear on at least one issue, and others picked up on this. Larry King in a comment noted that I could be arguing either (1) that one should focus on the godliness aspect of God, or (2) that God can be redefined as the sources of Godliness. Similarly, Freethinking Upstart argued that I was simply redefining God and this language game was not very helpful.

I am not redefining God; I am simply focusing on a different question than most theists and atheists.

Theists and atheists disagree over whether God exists. This is a purely supernatural debate. I don't think either side is capable of rigorous and compelling proof, and I am agnostic on this issue. But this debate does not have much immediate practical impact. One can believe or not believe that a supernatural being exists. But the practical question that follows, at least for Jews, is how does this effect one's actions and one's involvement with Judaism?

Many atheists I know argue that if there is no God, then there is no reason to have any serious level of Jewish practice or belief. One can be culturally Jewish (throw in a yiddish phrase here and there, eat bagels, support Israel, vote Democratic : )) and do pleasant religious things (light candles on Hanukkah, or have dinner with friends on Friday night) but that's about it. My contention is that even if a Jew is a firm and convinced atheist, that Jew should still have a robust Jewish religious life. I get there not by redefining God, but by focusing on a different question.

Most decent people (including theists and atheists) agree that godliness is a real attribute and is good. Theists argue that godliness consists of acting as God Himself would act and that God exists. Atheists argue that godliness is acting as God Himself would act if He existed, but He doesn't exist. But in either case, most everyone would agree that helping someone who needs help, being kind, and honoring your parents are all acts of godliness.

My claim is that this is sufficient for a robust and meaningful Judaism. Not Orthodoxy, but perhaps a lot closer to Orthopraxy in many areas of practice than most people would initially believe. (Of course, at this point I have simply asserted this, not shown it. That will be the subject of many upcoming posts.)

My point is not that we should redefine God this way. This godliness aspect of God is PART of traditional Judaism. For example, in Exodus, Moses could not see God's face, but could only see God's back. (The rest of us cannot even do that.) Maimonides explains that Moses could not perceive God intimately, and we certainly cannot do so. We cannot know or perceive God directly, the way we know and perceive rocks and trees and friends. Instead, we must know God through acts or the natural world.

"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork" (Psalms 19:2.) That is, we can see the glory of God through his created world.

There are numerous other examples in traditional Judaism, but the basic idea is that we experience God through natural beauty, doing mitzvot, studying, etc. Indirectly, not directly.

My contention is that we can step out of the theist / atheist debate and still have a robust and meaningful Judaism by focusing on this. Obviously, Judaism can be understood in the conventional OJ sense and these things really do reflect a supernatural God. But OJ suffers from all sorts of problems, including the documentary hypothesis. But Judaism can also be understood in the godliness sense, and that works well also. We can think of all these things as reflecting either the actual God or the ideal of God. It just does not matter.

There are lots of issues that this raises: prayer, ritual, problematic ethical rules, etc. All of these will be covered in future posts.

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