Questioning the Merit of Faith

By | Nov 30, 2010
Latest, Religion

By Steven Philp

Friday evening, nearly 3,000 people packed themselves in to the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Canada to witness former-British Prime Minister Tony Blair and author Christopher Hitchens grapple with the merits of religion. The event was part of the Munk Debate series, organized by the Aurea Foundation, for which the prompt was simply: “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” Blair–a recent convert to the Roman Catholic Church – was tasked with defending the necessity of faith communities, while Hitchens–author of the best-seller God is Not Great–argued that religion is the source of incalculable misery throughout human history. During the 90-minute debate, Hitchens seemed to hold sway over the crowd although a pre-debate poll showed 57% of the audience already agreed with his position, compared to the 22% who were sympathetic with Blair. The remaining participants were undecided.

As might be expected from such vocal personalities, both men conceded little to their opponent. Hitchens characterized religion as a dangerous anachronism, comparing G-d to “a kind of divine North Korea.” He equated omniscience to malevolence, arguing, “Once you assume a creator and a plan it makes us subjects in a cruel experiment.” Blair held the defensive through most of the debate, returning to the theme that throughout history people of faith have been engaged in acts for the betterment of humankind. “The proposition that religion is unadulterated poison is unsustainable,” Blair argued, pointing out that such generalizations ignore the multifaceted nature of faith communities. Yet in the end, he failed to qualify religion as more than “a benign progressive framework by which to live our lives.”

That this debate occurred Friday evening is apropos of a similar discussion within the Jewish community, as each Shabbat we are asked to make a conscious decision about what it means to be a Jew. On one hand, Judaism is a matter of faith affirmed by the commandments of shamor v’zachor, to keep and remember, the Sabbath. On the other, it is a cultural heritage that extends beyond the synagogue–if it includes it at all. As Jews we ask ourselves if Judaism as religion is “a force for good” in our lives, in our communities, and the world at large.

Unfortunately, elements of faith have been used through our history for oppression; consequently, it may not be surprising that traditionally subjugated minorities–women and the LGBT community, for example–have found greater degrees of mobility within those denominations of Judaism that have moved further away from strict observance. At the same time, there have been countless Jews who have contributed to the betterment of our communities – looking at the Forward 50 published earlier this year, we can see contemporary examples of fellow Jews who have taken leadership on a variety of issues. Yet contrary to Blair’s characterization of do-gooders their individual relationship to Judaism is not necessarily one of faith, even as this heritage may have inspired them toward a certain moral imperative. In this way, the religious element may not be necessary for the performing of good deeds. At the same time, there are many on the list that have an intimate relationship with Judaism as a faith practice. For them, it’s an inextricable part of their Jewish identity.

Then is it possible to separate Judaism as faith from Judaism as cultural heritage? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Rabbi Adam Chalom of Congregation Kol Chadash, a growing Humanistic community north of Chicago proper. He explained that the purpose of Humanistic Judaism is to honor Jewish culture in a way that is human-centered; it is a space for the secular Jew to celebrate his or her heritage, while “saying what they believe, and believing what they say.” In some cases, that may mean removing G-d from the equation. On the other hand, as a Jew-by-choice my approach to Judaism is one defined almost exclusively by faith; unlike Rabbi Chalom, I lack the cultural heritage of a born-Jew. Yet through our conversation, it was evident that we shared one key belief: Judaism can be “a force for good in the world.” It is true that our tradition – inherited or chosen–has been used to maintain systems of oppression. Yet it has also served, and continues to serve, as a source of inspiration for the betterment of mankind, for both secular and observant Jews alike.

4 thoughts on “Questioning the Merit of Faith

  1. Ben Hoffman says:

    At least half the Jews in Israel are secular. Jewish people generally don’t believe in the afterlife, heaven and hell, the devil, and of course, we don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God.

    The Torah was written over 2,000 years ago and it was an assumption of how the world and its inhabitants came to be. Most of us have embraced science and have a different understanding now. On the other hand, some 45% of Americans believe the world is less than 10,000 years old, which explains the sad state of our country and why there is little cause for hope that our democracy will survive.

  2. R.A. Lasker says:

    The article posted above is interesting, but (to some extent) confuses several issues (something that not infrequently happens when theistic Jews try to understand what observant secularists believe and do). I’ll try to correct at least a few of the misconceptions.

    The author notes the difference between “Jews-by-choice” and “born-Jews.” However, there is an assumption that the only reason to become a Jew, by choice, is a shared belief in the Torah’s deity. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one will find — in almost every non-theistic Jewish community or congregation — a significant percentage of “Jews by choice.” While most of them likely chose this affiliation through marriage or partnership with somebody born Jewish (this it true among more traditional communities, as well), some did not. They chose to become a part of the Jewish people for one of many other possible reasons, and are just as much Jews by choice as the author.

    There is a strong misconception in the American culture (and not just in Jewish-American culture) that “religious” is synonymous with “theistic.” If we examine world religion (and not just Judaism, though I will get to that) we find that this is a significant confusion of meanings. Nobody (I imagine) will quibble with the notion that Buddhism, as well as many of the schools of thought emanating from China and its environs (Confucianism and Taoism, among others) are religions. Buddhism, in fact, is frequently (if not “almost always”) counted among the great religions of the world. Yet several of these acknowledged religions are explicitly non-theistic. So, for that matter, is the Christian-inspired Unitarian-Universalist movement. There is no reason to imagine that Judaism also should not engender a non-theistic form of religion and, in fact, it has. To say (or even, imply) that Humanistic Judaism and the other non-theistic forms of Judaism are “non-religious” is at least an overstatement and, I would contend, materially incorrect.

    In fact, the only aspect of Jewish observance that Humanists generally eschew is the use of theistic language and the practice of prayer. On the other hand, our “observance” of the religion includes Shabbat and holiday services, life-cycle rites, study of history and literature (including the traditional “religious” texts) and ethical/moral guidelines and standards, as well as the entire host of cultural traditions relating to food, humor, music and life in general. To call us non-observant is to miss the boat.

    While we may not “observe” Judaism as do other Jews (then again, the ultra-Orthodox and Reform don’t observe Judaism the same ways, either) we aren’t non-religious, unobservant or disbelievers. Rather, our “religion,” “observances” and “beliefs” differ materially from those of (some) other Jews. But we are not secularists who eschew Judaism (those people do exist, of course). Instead, we practice and observe a religion (one that does not specifically include a deity) and share a belief in those ideas that make sense to us and that we find meaningful. In general outline (not in term of specific practices or beliefs), how does this differ materially from the Judaism that others practice?

  3. Last night I had a conversation with a dear friend who is a Jew by choice (aren’t we all?) and we addressed just these issues. I told him that since joining the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Association of Humanistic Rabbis I have become even stronger in my desire to welcome those who wish to adopt our cultural heritage. When Judaism is no longer a matter of faith then the faithful no longer dictate the rules of who gets in and boy do they love to do that dictating! I told him he is a Jew because he and the Jewish community adopted each other and that makes us family – no matter what our “birth parents” were.

  4. Jay S says:

    I agree that Judaism can be a force for good, but has also created, upheld, and encouraged systems of oppression. I pose a question: Can there be an organization, religious or otherwise, that is only a force for good and cannot be used toward evil or oppressive ends?

    Jews-by-choice need not choose Judaism based on faith, or faith alone. However, I think the faith of Jews-by-choice who were not raised Jewish is stronger and a bigger facet of their Judaism than faith is to many born Jews.

    R.A. Lasker writes that nobody will quibble with the notion that Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are religions. While he is wrong on at least two counts (I would claim that Taoism and Confucianism are philosopies and not necessarily religions), what bothers me more than this statement is his lack of understanding of the beliefs and customs of people who hold to these traditions. While Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism do not require belief in superhuman or divine beings, many Buddhists, Taoists, and believers in Confucian philosophy do believe in a divine being (or several) and worship non-human entities. Thus, Lasker’s statement that these ways are non-theistic is false. While a specific kind of theism might not be required to be a Buddhist, Brahma is mentioned in the Pali cannon. Simply because a specific tradition does not believe in a creator-god or a high-god does not mean that gods are shunned by that tradition, the way atheists and secularists (observant or not) shun gods today. Furthermore, Lasker mentions the Unitarian-Universalist Church as being another non-theistic religion. The UU does not endorse any creed, but does stand by 7 principles and 6 sources, one of the sources being Judeo-Christian conceptions of God’s love. Futhermore, many active Unitarians believe in at least one deity. So, if the requirement for a religion (definition of the term aside) to be non-theistic is simply that the doctrinal system does not endorse a specific theology, then I think that all Judaisms are non-theistic. Halakhic Judaisms stress practice more than theology; we are not commanded to believe in God. Furthermore, non-halakhic Judaisms place much more influence on ethics and values from Jewish tradition than theology. Belief in God is always secondary in Judaism. Thus, by the criterion Lasker implicitly sets in the comments, Judaism is a non-theistic religion as well.

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