About a hundred years ago, Don Marquis coined the phrase, “A hypocrite is a person who — but who isn’t?”
That quote occurred to me often over the past week — the week after I finished editing the Age of Certainty anthology written mainly by atheists of stories which cast God as a speculative element, a week during which I hit up leading “rationalists” for blurbs to help hawk it — a week in which I took my family and a couple Catholic kids from the neighborhood to Israel to celebrate our 13-year-old’s bar mitzvah, praying at the Western Wall in tallis and tefillin, visiting the spot on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where the original Christian church was founded, leading a traditional Shabbos dinner with prayers and rituals and discussions of text from the Torah. Oh, and for extra credit, three of the kids of I took with me — including two of my sons — are members of the Boy Scouts of America, an organization with which I am also affiliated as an assistant scoutmaster, and part of my brief on this trip was to help the boys earn a merit badge; there are only two things that can get you kicked out of BSA: being gay or being an atheist — and while lifting the ban on gays is at least being discussed, nobody is making a case for lifting the one on non-believers. (There are scouts who are Buddhists, Hindus, members of native American religions, and even some Wiccans, but you have to claim to be “reverent” toward something.)
So, in short, where do I get off?
Let’s start with my own identity. I’m a Jew. Whether or not I’m Jewish is beside the question. I have no choice in this matter; it is a circumstance of my circumcision. There are only about 15 million of us in the world and I guesstimate that for every one of us alive today there are 10 people in the world who want to see us all dead. Nazis, Klansmen and Islamic militants rarely follow up the question, “Are you a Jew?” with “How into it are you, really?”
It should also be pointed out that most Israeli Jews you’ll encounter are not religious stiffs. They don’t cover their heads. They don’t keep kosher; I was surprised by the ease with which I could find a bacon cheeseburger or a pepperoni pizza. They don’t keep the Sabbath (although there’s a strong cultural aversion to talking business on Friday nights). We timed our trip to coincide with the Jewish festival of Purim. If you’re not familiar with the story of Purim, I can tell you it’s on the same theme as every other Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us all. They couldn’t. Let’s eat.” What makes Purim unique is that it commemorates the events of the Book of Esther, the only biblical text that at no point mentions the name or even overtly suggests the existence of God. As far as the pious community is concerned, the holiday takes place over a one-day period that this year fell on Saturday night to Sunday. As far as the larger secular community is concerned, the party started Thursday night and, as far as I can tell, is still going on. It’s like Jewish Mardi Gras.
So I count myself as a secular Jew, but even that’s not the entire story. I went through a significant portion of my life trying to “return” from my Reform (i.e., virtually Episcopalian) upbringing to a more authentic (no ironic quotes) form of Judaism. I learned the rubrics of prayer and observance, as well as the customs and small-talk that would allow this frequent out-of-town visitor to pass for a fully observant Jew. What my Shabbos hosts didn’t know is that, after nightfall Saturday, I’d be returning to my red-headed Irish wife. Our three children are considered bastards or worse by the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox community (although, in fairness, not to all individuals therein) because their mother isn’t a Jew.
The Reform movement, which is much more OK with soaking money from Jewish dads who married out of the religion, doesn’t see a problem, but I have a problem with Reform. Basically, Reform Judaism doesn’t believe in anything as far as I can tell. They don’t practice anything except a couple of photo-op kid-oriented holidays and a once-a-year guilt fest that their temples rely on for funding purposes. And they don’t know anything. Although their rabbis tend to be quite adept at chanting from the Torah, few of them could converse in Hebrew long enough to get driving directions from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea. Reform laity knows even less about their supposed faith — those that know anything at all. I come away from Reform Judaism thinking it’s not a religion at all except in maybe the same sense that the Southern Baptist Convention is a religion: It’s got less to do with worshiping God than with providing ecclesiastical cover for a political party — the Democrats to the Baptist Republicans.
The Orthodox and Reform movements have one thing in common, though: They both consider me someone else’s problem. I’m generally unwelcome in both camps. (Exception to the rule: Chabad Lubavich. They’re “ultra-Orthodox” — to use a journalistic term they themselves find ridiculous — Chassidic Jews, but are refreshingly non-judgmental.) The Orthodox can never get past the fact that I maintain an “inappropriate relationship” with a gentile woman and continue to be part of the lives of the children I sired by her. The Reform don’t like the way I call them on their bullshit. So what’s left for me?
Well, there’s always Christianity. Nothing would like my wife happier, I’m sure. But to be brutally honest, I think the reason a lot of people have an issue with religion in general is that they grew up in a country where the prevailing religion is this misbegotten Rube Goldberg device slapped together from spare parts from Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and both Greco-Roman and Norse mythology. I’m astonished by how many otherwise perfectly reasonable people buy into this nonsense in such a big way. You can make fun of the whole concept of religion, but Christianity is the one religion that all the other religions make fun of. It’s intellectually, morally and spiritually bankrupt. Well, maybe not spiritually. If you define “spirituality” as the energy to jump around, a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’ with abandon, then yeah, it’s spiritual. If you define spirituality as getting in touch with quiet, still, divine voice within yourself, good luck.
So I’m an atheist, right? Wrong. I feel the need to believe in at least the possibility of something.
So I’m an agnostic, right? Wrong. Agnostics are to atheists what bisexuals are to gays — maybe they’re for real, but maybe they’re just kidding themselves. I like to think I know myself better.
I’m a believer. A believer in what? I don’t know. Not Giant Space Daddy. Not Flying Spaghetti Monster. Definitely not some Jewish guy who took time before fulfilling his death sentence to get his hair bleached and nose fixed.
But I believe in justice. I believe in kindness. I believe in charity. I believe in abstract thought and free will. And I believe that these are the traits than natural selection tends not to favor over cunning, camouflage, sharp claws and powerful jaw muscles.
So I choose to believe in a purpose, a direction, a human nature that is distinct from animal nature. That doesn’t mean we didn’t descend from animals. Of course we did. That makes all living things on earth our cousins, and our responsibility as stewards, not as masters.
It’s often said that Unitarianism “believes in, at most, one God.” The same quip applies to Judaism too. So it’s fair to say I too believe in, at most, one God. Judaism, at least, concedes its inability to adequately describe this God. Usually, Jews refer to “Adonai” — the enforcer of justice who does what He can to temper His indignation at your affronts with mercy and understanding. But some people don’t respond well to that. There’s also an emanation of God called the “Shechina” — and She (yes, this side of God is perceived as female) is a protective, motherly presence. There are others as well, culminating in what’s called Ein Sof, That Without End, that which cannot be manifested or understood, that which is forever beyond our comprehension. This is God with all the tinsel torn away.
This is something I can believe in at least the possibility of.