More thoughts on Jewish Identity

Posted: September 2, 2011 in Because I love Judaism I can never be a pure rationalist, My moral code
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I follow and befriend a lot of people who are either Libertarians, Objectivists, or Atheist Evolutionists (or some combination of the 3). This is because I’m basically a classical liberal rationalist, who believes in a God that doesn’t give stuff to you just because you happen to pray for it, and who has very little tolerance for intolerance. I don’t think that the last clause of the previous sentence is hypocritical, but that’s the subject for another post. Interestingly, the Objectivists and Atheists, who are always disparaging the dogma of religion, are frequently equally dogmatic in their anti-religion. They say very insulting things about people who believe in God; but they save some of their greatest criticism for people like me.

What I mean is this: Ayn Rand called accepting irrational concepts “evil”. To some Objectivists, then, people who have strong “faith” are “evil” by virtue of the objectivist ethics. Some may just be naive and Objectivist will just write them off. But worse than the naive ones, is a guy like me who accepts reason as the primary distinguishing characteristic of human existence but who still identifies with a religious community. To me they ask: “Why do you believe in God?” or “Why do you study the Torah?” or why…. whatever. And, about my belief that the Bible is not literally true and that God doesn’t actually answer your prayers, they say: “What good is a lame belief like that?!?”

This is my answer….

For several thousand years, the Jewish people have existed as an independent culture. Do I think we really ate manna? No. Do I think we really all stood at Sinai? No. Do I think that we should hope for a 3rd temple so we can start sacrificing cows again?  Hell no. Do I think that some angels are helping God write down all our deeds in a big book that gets reviewed on the High Holy Days? I think not. But, what I do think is that the cultural history of my people must be preserved at all cost. Why? Because from the day we expressed our independence as a culture, other people have been trying to obliterate it. Whether it was the first crusade in 1098, or the Spanish expulsion in 1492, or the murderously evil Nazis in the 1930’s and 40’s, or the holocaust denying bastards of today, everyone seems to want to destroy my people’s history.

Today I study ancient texts in an ancient language, perform ritual that I don’t believe has any real supernatural power, and actively practice prayer in a Synagogue when I don’t believe in a God who actually “does stuff for you”, because those are the things that make my culture identifiable.  I know of no way to keep Jewish culture alive without actively wrestling with the Jewish myth and trying to identify with what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call the Jewish semiology (a Mazzuah is a symbol, Tefellin are symbols, Shabbat candles are symbols, etc).

My Objectivist friends might think that’s stupid; my Atheist friends might think it’s irrational; my Christian friends might think that’s a lot of work dedicated to a lame conception of God; my orthodox Jewish friends (yes, I have and I cherish them even if I don’t agree with or understand them)  may think I’m missing out on the richness of the religion of my Grandfather’s home town of Berdichiv or the great rabbinate of Breslov. And… you know… one or more of them may even be right. But I’ve studied too much Jewish history, I’ve seen too many people speak too many times of their experiences in Nazi Germany and war torn Europe, and I’ve read too much Holocaust denial bullshit to do anything other than my very best to actively contribute to saving my culture.

Nathaniel Branden once told me that my choice to practice “religion”, when I know full well that the highest human virtue is reason, builds an inner conflict that makes my life harder than it has to be. Dr. Branden is right. But, for better or worse, if I have to wrestle with intellectual and emotional and spiritual conflict so that I can say that I did my part to save Jewish culture, then so be it. I’ll accept that burden. Because if everyone who doesn’t believe in an active supernatural relationship with a prayer-answering God who created the world in 7-days and then led us around a desert for 40 years were to give up on Judaism, then it would surely die. Other people’s opinions and my own spiritual conflicts aside, I’m doing my part to keep my rich culture alive. If that seems silly to you, fine. When I’m gone from the Earth I want people to say: “you know, he might have been a little confused, but he sure did his part to keep Judaism alive. The world is better because he was willing to wrestle”.

Shabbat Shalom.

  1. Cuz M says:

    Well, for a strictly personal reply, I thought, “wait, he means his *great* Grandfather from Berdichev!”

    Until I remembered, right, his granddad was an “older brother,” born “over there!”

    I love the wrestling aspect, btw. The more I teach Torah-for-young-uns, the more I’m captivated by Jacob’s night encounter. We wrestle with the ineffable and we’re left changed by it, even if we don’t fully understand what just happened….

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