Home » Religion and Jewish Thought, Simon Holloway

Two Beers and an Argument Please

August 14, 2009 – 11:00 am42 Comments

Pillar2-Supernatural-GodCreates-Man-Sistine-ChapelBy Simon Holloway

There’s an old adage: do not discuss religion at parties. Having been burned a number of times, I tend to shy away from it, but am still a sucker for answering direct questions that are initiated by other people. One of the most complex, in my experience, is also the simplest: do I believe in God? I am never entirely sure how to answer this question and so I generally commence by telling them that I think they asked the wrong question. Things tend to go downhill from there.

You see, there are two ways of asking this question and, while the difference between them may appear innocuous, it is also rather staggering. “Do you believe in God?” is a question that relates to a belief in the existence of, and the actions and sayings attributed to, the main protagonist in the Hebrew Bible. I know this because the question lacks an article and so, when written, it would require the capital letter that designates it as a proper name. More often than not, however, people are really wanting to know whether or not I believe in a god. In other words, a prime mover; a first cause, responsible for creating the very notion of creation.

There is a world of difference between these two questions, and the difference is reflected in my answers to them. Do I believe in God? No, I do not. Not only do I think that all of the actions and speeches attributed to this character in the Hebrew bible belong within the realm of fiction, I also believe that any opinion that “he” expresses is the opinion of the authors of the text that records it. When God says that homosexuality is icky, that Canaanites deserve to die and that people who put cheese in their shwarma are bad people, what I have is a record of the sorts of thoughts and opinions that were current among particular communities of proto-Jews, over two thousand years ago. Do I have the immortal words of a eternal deity? Surely not.

Then, of course, there is the question that they meant to ask. Do I believe in a god? Do I think that the complexity of our universe, the complexity of reality itself, or – at the very least – the seeming complexity of our own minds in their appraisal of these phenomena, requires a deity? Perhaps it requires several deities, but that’s a scientific question, isn’t it? My answer is still no, but it’s now a different type of “no”: I don’t know whether or not there is a deity (or even an entire pantheon of gods, godlings and animal spirits) and, frankly, I also don’t really care. The nature of the creation of our universe, while fun to consider from time to time, is the occupation of physicists and surfies. The precise conditions under which our world came into being won’t interfere with my ability to catch a bus, sing a song, or eat a shwarma with cheese.

In other words, I believe with complete faith that even if this universe has a conscious creator, that creator did not write a book. I believe that it did not infuse certain individuals with a kind of cosmic fairydust that enables them to understand things hidden from us mere mortals. I do not believe that this deity chose a specific group of people, whose descendants (for no greater honour than having been born) would constitute the privileged few, destined to spread the word of the Lord throughout the earth. In fact, I do not even believe that these sorts of things can be believed by anybody except those who were raised in an environment conducive to their belief. Identification with such precepts is emotional and not intellectual, which is why almost everybody adopts the religion of their parents.

However, I believe very much in Judaism. I believe that the Hebrew Bible is a genuine work of literary creativity, and is deservedly famous as a result. I believe that many of our sages were genuinely inspired and genuinely inspiring. I believe that the religion that they created is a superb monument to the creative ingenuity of the human mind, and I think that any effort to cement it in a literal truth is stultifying. To paraphrase the late Douglas Adams, a garden can be beautiful and worthy of preservation without needing to believe that there are fairies in the bottom of it. Our texts, from the Bible onwards, are remarkable examples of human literature. To suggest that they were composed by gods, that they confer magical powers or that they presage the future would be like pointing to a garden and declaring it full of fairies.

Needless to say, I don’t really get invited to parties any more.

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  • Michael says:

    It’s like you read my mind!

    However wouldn’t answering “no” cover all bases anyway? Sometimes a non-trivial question warrants only a very simple answer.

    Of course once we do say no the questioner is likely to be compelled to refine and ask something more specific.

  • Chaim says:

    Yet “there are no atheists in a foxhole..”

    It is amazing at those times people give up their so called rational or intellectual beliefs and give in to deep, internal, primordial belief and pray…

  • Chaim, are you referring to situations in which a person’s life is threatened and they surrender to the instinct that a guiding force might be capable of saving them? If you are, I think that proves my point. When a drowning man clutches at a straw, it says nothing for the strength of straws, but volumes for the desperation of those about to die.

  • Chaim says:

    You could put it that way or you could say that a Jew’s soul which is so concealed and diminished by their clutch to physicality becomes revealed at those times revealing the spark of G-dlines within in it and their innate knowledge and belief in G-d.

    What people seem to ignore is that science in general is also based on beliefs – a set of unproven assumptions.

    “We are all believers in G-d. It is just a matter of definition.”

    Science may answer for you what or how but not why..

  • Michael says:

    We are all believers in G-d. It is just a matter of definition.
    Under what definition are atheists believers in God?

    Also what would be an example of a why question that science may not answer?

    PS. http://www.ffrf.org/foxholes/

  • Chaim says:

    Michael: Prove to me G-d does not exist.

    Science by definition is about proving facts not about providing meaning or reasons. Science teaches us how to do things, while the Torah teaches us when and for what they should be used.

    Science is based on probabilities (which means to say that they are not absolute truths), whereas faith is based on revelation and the oral and written transmission of millions of people throughout thousands of years.

    A hundred and fifty years ago they thought that science and physics spoke the absolute truth. Kant and Einstein proved that science never did and never will be able to give absolute truths. The scientist can only say: If you will accept these axioms and these methods of deduction, you will come to the following conclusions.

    But if you do not accept these axioms, science can do nothing for you… People act in accordance with their beliefs, and skeptics are no different. Prove to me gravity exists.

    I am not trying to convince you to believe in G-d or Judaism. It is interesting how people can often scoff at believers in G-d (NOT that Simon was actually doing that), yet have no qualms or questions on their own BELIEF system. At best you can be agnostic.

    Simon – I like arguing… It is probable my Yetzer hora and probably to my detriment…

    My philosophy is that belief is at the basis of everything rather than “proofs”. Contradictions to my belief system need to be examined thoroughly to decide if they are really conflicts. If they really are – then my belief system is wrong.

  • Algernon Misanthrope says:

    My Dear Mr Holloway,

    You simply must come to more of my type of parties! Wonderful. -And provocative. Together at last!

    One wonders whether you’ve cut things a little too fine when saying that something can be inspired and yet NOT inspired in THAT kind of way, considering the etymological break down of the very word.

    -That being said, I’ve never truly been too taken with the idea of divine birth-right as a basis for religious snootiness, but either something is inspired by a greater power (energy, being, deity, archetype, thing-a-me-bob,) or its not.

    Did something outside of the these people inspire them or not? And if so, was it a deity or a divine case of wind and food-poisoning?

    Algernon Misanthrope

  • Chaim: Prove to you that gravity exists?? You’re kidding, right? That has nothing to do with accepting axioms; you can take a walk off a cliff and let the world convince you for itself. As for whether or not science works irrespective of whether or not you choose to accept its principles? Well, you can proceed off the same cliff in the interior of an aeroplane and savour the fruits of those godless physicists. With air conditioning too!

    Of course, not all scientists are “godless” people, but let me ask you this. Rather than hum and haw about whether or not I can disprove the existence of God (because, obviously, I cannot), I will instead remind you that the burden of proof never rests with the sceptic. Allow me instead to ask you a question. Can you prove to me that there is only one God? Can you even give me a compelling reason to believe it? If you do believe it, can you prove that he never descended to earth in a human form and allowed himself to get nailed to a cross? I am sure that you can come up with reasons, but I think you’ll find that those reasons are wild-cards: equally applicable under any circumstances.

    At the end of the day, those of us with faith choose to have that faith, and we make that decision on emotional grounds. Incidentally, I have no problem with that – and certainly no problem with your Yetzer HaRa, which is something that I can definitely relate to! We each need to find our own path in life, and there is nothing wrong with making emotional decisions. I just think that it is so fundamentally different to the scientific method that they cannot even be adequately contrasted.

    Mr Misanthrope: Always a pleasure! I like to use the word “inspired” in this context as one might describe Oasis as having been inspired by The Beatles. Nobody would suggest, after all, that they were channeling a dead John. In the same way, I don’t think of the Rabbis as actually “channeling” God. I do, however, think of them as being completely turned on by the idea of God, and as having used that as a sort of muse in their construction of some truly fabulous literature.

  • Michael says:

    Chaim, your response didn’t answer my 2 questions — although this might not have been your intention.

    As an interesting aside, how do you think Einstein “proved” that science can’t “prove” anything?

  • Chaim says:

    Sorry about the delay. I am currently in the US and your emails came in right before Shabbos.

    Michael: I thought I had answered your question indirectly. Atheists can not exist because you can not prove G-d does not exist, therefore your are agnostic. As to the why question: Why are we on this earth? – I was talking about meaning and purpose.

    Although I learn and practice in the realm of science I am no physicist. I don’t really want to get into argument on science itself. There are plenty of forums on science and Judaism. I only brought it as an example of where we accept with faith certain things e.g. Gravity, theory of relativity and because they are not tangible we can not prove they exist. Furthermore there are parts of science e.g. the interchangeability of matter and energy in which the process is completely incomprehensible. We accept them because they help explain different phenomena in our physical world that are otherwise incomprehensible.

    Why are we willing to believe here in something beyond the means of our knowledge and yet, when it comes to believing in G-d – we demand irrefutable proof?

    We could debate about G-d indefinitely because we have different definitions of G-d. It you were presented with an accurate description there might be no argument. It is likely that the G-d you don’t believe in I also do not believe in.

    Any human definition of G-d is limited by the boundaries of human knowledge and the limitations of our personal senses, emotions and intellect.

    What is the true reality of our existence? We can only understand cause and affect. We can not comprehend or even imagine an existence that is undefined. What does ein od bilvado mean? Can you truly experience it.

    The Rebbe wrote: Faith is not the absence of reason, it is a skill in its own right, which, when cultivated, allows us to experience the ultimate.

    We have many faculties that we can utilize. We have senses, emotions, intellect and faith.

    People inherently believe in something greater than themselves. It is a feeling but not an emotion inside of all of us. We are born with it. It is neither taught nor acquired. It is an innate natural part of us.

    It is not about being naive, nor the absence of reason. It is a faculty that recognizes truths that are infinitely, incomprehensibly greater than ourselves and accepts them as real and relevant. Not like the emotional faith that you quote Simon..

    As we “mature”, our faith which is so apparent in our childhood gets obscured by reason. This could be from experiences of hypocrisy, lies or suffering. We begin to use the faculties of reason and emotion only and silence the faith that is inherently within all of us.

    Back to my original point. Why the double standard. We do we except without reason and understanding certain precepts eg in science yet with G-d we refuse.

    Because as the Rebbe once said; “people are afraid of their faith. They fear the demands their faith might put upon them, that they might have to forgo some of the comfort, or compromise some of their ideas. They fear changing their lives”

    It is very easy to write in 250 words how you don’t believe in G-d. Yet there are hundreds of treatise on the subject of the knowledge of G-d.

    You might say: I am happy. I don’t care. But suppressing any part of yourself whether an emotion or faith lets it gather, stew and eventually explode. We will see where you both are in years to come, when you have families (making assumptions here) and you realize how limited your comprehension of existence really is.

    P.S. If your are interested in science. Look up string theory and Kabbalah.

  • (*Takes a deep breath*)

    First of all, Chaim, it’s Ein od milvado and what it means in the Bible is substantially different to what it means to you today because, like all other things, this religion of yours has evolved over the past 2,000 years. In the Bible (Deuteronomy 4:35), it means that no other god exists aside from our God; in Chabad theology, it means that nothing exists except for God. This notion, that all reality is an emanation of the divine, is absolutely foreign to the world of the Bible’s authors.

    Yes, it is somewhat true that the God that I don’t believe in is one that you don’t believe in either. That’s a cute expression: wasn’t it Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who said that? You forget, however, that the god that you do believe in is also one in which I don’t believe, but I suppose there’s no point in getting bogged down by specifics. Speaking of which, did you even read my last comment? You still think that you cannot prove gravity, do you? I am sorry to hear that.

    The question with science (which, as you correctly observe, is not the topic of this thread) is not so much to do with the irrefutability of its propositions, but moreso with the irrefutability of its method. You can sing and dance for all you like about whether or not things can be disproven, but the reality is that you are also incapable of proving the existence of God. Hey, I suppose that makes you an agnostic.

    PS: There is no relationship between string theory and the kabbala. So sorry.

  • Michael says:

    Atheists can not exist because you can not prove G-d does not exist, therefore your are agnostic.

    There are two common definitions of atheism:
    1. Someone who doesn’t have a God belief
    2. Someone who believes there is no God.

    Proving that God does not exist has nothing to do with #1, and even for #2 (since assuming you can’t prove God’s nonexistence all it would mean is that an atheist according to definition #2 believes something without proof — again such people can certainly exist).

    As to the why question: Why are we on this earth? – I was talking about meaning and purpose.

    I don’t see how this is off limits to science. As a hypothetical, let’s imagine it was shown that we and all other species on earth were designed by CarbonBasedLife Pty Ltd (an alien corporation from Alpha Centauri) as the result of a bet between their CEO and the CFO. I think this would answer the question of “why we are here” quite well. And if you meant some transcendent, intrinsic “why” then why should we believe such things exist at all?

  • Chaim says:

    Simon – you can pick on my spelling mistakes all you want. You are making the assumption that kabbalah did not exist in biblical times. That is a belief which your literary criticism make based on assumptions of grammar, style etc. This is different to the tradition which has been passed down over thousands of years.

    There are many levels of interpretation of the bible and pshat is the lowest and simplest but does not exclude other interpretations.

    The quote may be from the Berditchever – I have no idea. I have heard it many times and it was appropriate.

    As for your earlier cliff comment. This is not a proof of the existence of the force of gravity but rather a situation where the theory of gravity explains your perception. I wrote that above.

    The method of science like I said originally makes assumptions and is based on axioms. With quantum theory many of these assumptions are questionable because they are not true in every situation. Am I an agnostic. Yes in some ways it is true. When I base my beliefs purely on my limited intellectual conception of reality. Yet if G-d exists – he is the true reality and my perceptions could never be true.


    Michael – you are right, if you change from the commonly understood definition (#2).

    transcendent, intrinsic “why” – yes. I didn’t say anything is off limits to science. Science by definition doesn’t address it. As I wrote, People inherently believe in something greater than themselves.

  • If gravity is simply a theory, for which my cliff example provided only one instance of a correlation, then I would dearly love to hear an example of a situation in which this theory fails to come into effect. Furthermore, I think that if you are going to insist on calling it a theory then you are also going to need to find a way of differentiating between it and those theories that have absolutely nothing to recommend them except faith.

    As for Kabbalah: no, of course I don’t think that it existed in “Biblical times”. Even if it did, do you really think that the tenets of string theory (as Rabbi Ginsburgh “understands” them) align themselves with it? This is apologetics and it possesses a limited application. You can’t stress the continually changing nature of science and then also get excited when it appears, on a superficial level, to correlate with Torah. You even singled out quantum physics as an area that especially typifies scientific ignorance, so I find it most interesting that you then went on to derive meaning from the fact that, according to Ginsburgh, it aligns with various kabbalistic doctrines.

    If you want to convince me, provide me with something written by somebody who is either a kabbalistic scholar or a scientist. Ginsburgh qualifies as neither: what he calls Kabbalah is really Chabad Chassidus and, despite the fact that his website makes the (modest) claim that he is “our generation’s most respected authority on Jewish Mysticism”, nobody outside of Chabad has even heard of him. He has exceptionally limited formal training in mathematics and physics, and no understanding of Kabbalah beyond its contextualisation through the prism of Chabad. You are welcome to believe, if you like, that Chabad Chassidus also existed in “Biblical times” (or that Chabad is a true manifestation of Kabbalah, that existed – etc etc), but that’s up to you. I am coming from a very different perspective than you are, so we’re unlikely to find common ground on this matter.

  • Chaim says:

    Simon – you are not reading or understanding what I am writing. I did not say gravity does not exist or is not true.

    Science is evolving. As it does it aligns more and more wit Torah. Originally it seem to contradict it. And yes string theory may be false. Science is not a proof for G-d or Judaism. It is just interesting following these dynamics.

    Reason and faith do not have to contradict each other. They only do if you have a primary belief eg G-D does not exist and your “evolution” of Judaism and then use reasoning to support your hypothesis.

    On the other hand – faith is connecting to the essence of G-d, while reason can only connect to the expression of G-d. Faith is not passive. Reason can cultivate faith. But it is limited.

    As I said originally. All our philosophies are primarily based on beliefs and we support them with our own sometimes biased reasoning.

    I understand we will not agree. Like you said we are coming FROM different perspectives. I am not trying to convince you personally of anything. There are limits to your philosophy and I was pointing them out. It is all about the initial hypothesis. I don’t believe Torah evolves. I believe our personal knowledge of Torah and the world evolve.

    As for string theory and religion. the originally books I read where written by physicists. Rabbi Ginzburgh may not consider himself a kabbalist but his learning is not limited to Chabad Chassidus. I will get back to you.

  • Chaim says:

    Just some clarifications:

    Although R. Ginzburgh is a lubavitcher his yehivos are not Lubavitch and most of his students are not. He is known widely outside of Chabad. His defintion of being a kabbalaist and yours likely are not the same. He studies Kabalah from original texts…

  • cyberjew says:

    Hello fellow earthlings,

    Firstly, I’d like to say: shkoyekh, Simon! An entertaining and very thoughtful piece.

    I’m an observant Jew, and I’d like to offer a somewhat different perspective to that which has been articulated by Chaim. Chaim has presented a perspective that is characteristic of many Chabad chasidim, which (1) rejects the scientific method; and (2) seeks to harmonise “traditional” interpretations of Torah (meaning those espoused in Chabad) with the findings of scientists. I take a very different approach, which is admittedly a little less common these days but no less a part of Jewish tradition. It is based primarily on the approach of the Rambam (called “Maimonideanism” is English, though I believe that it is already well represented amongst chaza”l (the sages of the Talmud) though admittedly it has never been dominant).

    Firstly, I fully accept the efficacy of the scientific method. I see no need to defend this position – that the world works according to laws, and that the method has proven effective beyond the wildest dreams of those who espoused it over he centuries is self-evident. The way that this position has been articulated is, “ha’olam ke-minhago noheg”/”the world works according to it’s law/custom/way”. (I’m not sure if that is a direct citation from the Rambam, but it has been used extensively to describe his position, which is clear to anyone who has half a mind and studies his works.)

    So then we come to two questions: The first is that posed in Simon’s article (or both of them); and the second is, why keep mitzvot/the commandments?

    In response to the first of those questions, it has become as clear as day that it is not productive to attempt to prove the existence of God (this emerges the most clearly from the Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”; although the fact that it has proven to be an unproductive pursuit after a couple of thousand years of frantic effort is also an indicator). As for disproving the existence of God, perhaps Chaim can suggests a way for us to disprove the existence of an invisible and supernatural being… until he does that, it is a claim which is not falsifiable, and any claim that is not falsifiable is a bad scientific claim. This point requires a lot more space but IT IS VERY BORING!!! Because this is not the point at all. In any case, the very word “existence” is a problematic one for the Rambam, for Kabbalists, for Buddhists and many Hindus… So let’s avoid this whole stupid discussion. It’s not constructive.

    As for the second part of the first question (belief in the biblical God) – there are a range of biblical beliefs, and there are a range of rabbinic beliefs. Short of straight polytheism and simple atheism, you’ll find most combinations there: Even quasi-polytheism; even Buddha-esque non-theism. So take your pick. Many Kabbalists opt for the former position; The Rambam for the latter; Most Kabbalists go for a unique combination of the two.

    In light of the positions that I have articulated above, I prefer to take a different approach. I prefer to ask two questions: 1. How do people describe their experiences of the divine, and their experience of the world in relation to the divine (a phenomenological approach)?; and 2. What is are the consequences of believing one way or another, and how is/are the literary character/s of God constructed in order to have a positive effect on how people live (a consequentialist approach)?

    Btw, there is a strong relationship between those two questions. Anyone who reads the newspaper, grew up in a family of survivors of some horrible act of cruelty (totally unpredictably, the Holocaust comes to mind…) or has traveled widely with their eyes and minds open can appreciate the Hindu personification of calamity and destruction, Kali (Shiva’s consort, who also performs a positive role, facilitating rebirth and renewal – many-armed, cross-eyed, sticking her tongue out and wearing a very becoming necklace made of severed human heads). So phenomenologically, she isn’t a very difficult deity to grasp. But accounts of murderous, Kali-worshipping cults make one think that having a murderous god is probably a bad idea. (The same can easily be said to be true of those monotheists who believe in a vengeful and pitiless god – though most wouldn’t describe it like that, there is no other way to understand belief in a god who consciously and actively wipes out hundreds of poor people in Asia in tsunami in a fit of rage.)

    Just to finish on the phenomenological point: there are those – and this is true across cultures – that experience a profound unity in the world, something beyond the fragmented (and beautiful, and ugly) reality in which we live (the Rambam, also Chabad; certain schools of Hinduism; Buddhism); and there are those that experience profound fragmentation, or see a dizzying kaleidoscope of variation and forces at work in the world (popular Hinduism; many streams of Kabbalah). Those experiences are reflected in the way they talk about god/s (and admittedly, as Prof. Yehudah Liebes of the Hebrew U in Jerusalem has pointed out, even systematic theological language has its origins in mythology – and that is not intended as a critique, Liebes is a great lover of mythology, as am I!).

    And there are many famous quotes that I could bring you concerning the character of god/s as a model for human behaviour, demonstrating a consequentialist approach within traditional religion.

    Finally, why bother with mitzvot? Well, according to the Rambam (according to his version, not a Leibowitzian version of him, which Leibowitz himself admitted was not entirely faithful to the Rambam), the reason to accept the mitzvot is because they are good norms. They are intended to create a stable society, reduce conflict, focus one’s life on positive values and goals, and sensitise one to the beauty of the world and the suffering of all people (and non-human animals, as well; and even the welfare of non-animal life). Basically, the reason to keep Torah is that it’s good.

    (By this point, you may have picked up that I also find the idea of a god who writes books unacceptable.)

    Anyway, I wanted to articulate these thoughts as a counter-balance to Chaim – as a frum Jew who agrees (largely) with the content of this article. I maintain that it is possible to give free range to one’s reason and still to acknowledge the insights communicated in the many accounts of the divine, and to believe that a life of devotion to Torah and mitzvot is a worthy one to live. (I do realise that these points do not flow directly from one another as conclusions.)

    May we all have good health, and attain insights into the world!

    Brukhe v’hatzlukhe,


  • Saki says:

    You may not find Rabbi Ginsburgh’s ideas agreeable, but its poor form to dismiss his credentials with unexamined libel. It is fair to say a double major from the University of Chicago in both mathematics and philosophy, as well as a Masters in Mathematics at the Belfer Graduate School, would not be considered “exceptionally limited formal training in mathematics and physics.” And although true of some Chabad Rabbis, your claim that he has “no understanding of Kabbalah beyond its contextualisation through the prism of Chabad” is patently untrue. A quick reading of his works will prove his non-insular kabbalistic thought, this is evidenced within his classes and books which not only include but also present sephardic, breslov, and classic kabbalistic texts in their proper context. So again, poor form, Simon. Don’t let Chaim make you lose your cool and resort to that kind of stuff.

    As far as my comments on the content of you essay, I won’t be so kind, although I certainly am epithetic of your foolhardy romp through science, religion, history, and literature. The last and final leap of faith you ask us to make is probably the most thoughtless and inane, and I quote:
    “However, I believe very much in Judaism. I believe that the Hebrew Bible is a genuine work of literary creativity”
    Cause that’s what Judaism is, a bunch of guys who where interested in literary creativity. I mean come on! Simon? how far will we be asked to stretch our imagination so that you can feel justified in not being able to come to terms with your native traditions and western citizenship? Jeremiah was not trying to impress you with his prose, he was trying to wake you up. The first step into this conversation would be a little honesty.

    But I hear you loud and clear. Your too busy catching a bus, or singing a song, or eating a shwarma with cheese to think about God, and frankly don’t really care. I’ve been there, I understand. But I have to ask myself that with such a materialistic and unstudied perspective how do you feel qualified to dismiss those who do spend their time thinking about such things?

  • cyberjew says:

    Oy vey! I’m sorry that was so bloody long!

  • Chaim says:

    cyber jew – now you are just being rude.

    I never rejected scientific method. I just said it is also based on assumptions.

    String theory is also not provable nor disprovable yet the theory is debated within scientific circles without being rejected.

    Rmabam: The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom, is to know their is a First existence, who brings all existences into being.

  • Chaim says:

    CyberJew –

    “Observant” “Frum Jew yet “find the idea of a god who writes books unacceptable”

    Do you mean because Hashem has no hands he did not write it (what about the original tables) or that you don’t believe he dictated it at all to Moshe Rabbeinu and but rather he made it up.

    Where does this fit in with Rambam?

  • Saki,

    A double-major in an undergraduate degree, followed by a Masters, is exceptionally minimal training, and the substance of his literature is testament to that. I am sorry that it upsets you when I criticise him in such a manner, but if he doesn’t want people to critique his scholarship then he shouldn’t promote it as though that is what it is. Calling himself “our generation’s most respected authority on Jewish Mysticism” only invites detractors and I am pleased to report that my opinion would have been the same irrespective of the context under which I was asked.

    I also stand by my initial statement that his understanding of Kabbalah comes through the prism of Chabad, and I will even elaborate on that to suggest that this is a problem with Lubavitch analysis of Kabbalah in general. In the same way as it is now almost impossible to appreciate the Zohar except through the lens of the Etz Chayyim, it is also impossible for a Lubavitcher to appreciate the older literature except through the lens of Sefer Tanya and the ma’amarim of its author. Indeed, it is even impossible to understand those texts except through the lens of the ma’amarei Rebbe Rashab, but that’s a different issue.

    As for your carefully reasoned critique of my article, I am truly sorry that you consider it “thoughtless and inane” to suggest that the Bible is a great work of literature. There are millions of other people who would have agreed with me, and so I hope you will forgive me if I don’t take that particular criticism to heart. Jeremiah was, indeed, trying to “wake up” his audience and, given that the text was composed for posterity, we can consider ourselves a part of that. But to suggest that this is all that he was trying to do would be to ignore the medium in which he chose to convey his message.

    Allow me to tell you a profound truth about the books of the Bible: they are books. Unless you approach them with a suitable methodology for understanding ancient literature (literature that was not only produced by a foreign culture but which was composed in a language no longer spoken), you will never understand the message that they convey. Had Jeremiah wished to convey his message via interpretive dance then he would have done so, but this is the medium that he chose. Try to be conscious of that when you read it.

  • Cyberjew! So pleased that you decided to join this thread. Rather than driving me further into atheism, I was getting ready to start defending religious Judaism instead.

  • Saki says:

    “A double-major in an undergraduate degree, followed by a Masters, is exceptionally minimal training,”
    what? I don’t understand, with all seriousness can you explain?
    “and the substance of his literature is testament to that.”
    I am not defending his substance, as I said you, may find it disagreeable.
    “I am sorry that it upsets you when I criticise him in such a manner”
    It doesn’t upset me. I think it was poor form and Libel.
    Calling himself “our generation’s most respected authority on Jewish Mysticism”
    This was probably written by one of his followers, as it is written in 2nd person.
    “I also stand by my initial statement that his understanding of Kabbalah comes through the prism of Chabad, and I will even elaborate on that to suggest that this is a problem with Lubavitch analysis of Kabbalah in general. In the same way as it is now almost impossible to appreciate the Zohar except through the lens of the Etz Chayyim, it is also impossible for a Lubavitcher to appreciate the older literature except through the lens of Sefer Tanya and the ma’amarim of its author. Indeed, it is even impossible to understand those texts except through the lens of the ma’amarei Rebbe Rashab, but that’s a different issue.”
    Good point. But for those who are not just interested in name dropping but have studied all the material you mentioned it is possible to have an understanding of each separate prism. Of course there are very few people who actually do take the time to study ALL of these works, and they are very much the exception to the rule. Rabbi Ginsburgh is one of them. I am not at all suggesting you should therefore agree with anything he says, just that you cannot dismiss him offhandedly.
    “As for your carefully reasoned critique of my article, I am truly sorry that you consider it “thoughtless and inane” to suggest that the Bible is a great work of literature.”
    Not at all. It is a great work of literature, What is thoughtless and inane is to suggest that you “believe very much in Judaism” by virtue of you having noticed it is “a genuine work of literary creativity” As you write “there are millions of other people who would” consider it a genuine work of literary creativity, and they would not be considered believing in Judaism. Let’s be honest about what the Hebrew bible is trying to accomplish, its quite clear.
    “Allow me to tell you a profound truth about the books of the Bible: they are books.”
    Thanks, I guess thats why they call it a Sefer Torah, that always threw me off :)
    “Unless you approach them with a suitable methodology for understanding ancient literature (literature that was not only produced by a foreign culture but which was composed in a language no longer spoken), you will never understand the message that they convey. ”
    Couldn’t agree more. So I guess after approaching the Bible this way you came to the conclusion that its not about God, but about literary creativity.
    Simon, the tone of my response may sound antagonistic, and it is, but I’m really teasing you a bit.
    All of your questions are profound. And the people who don’t ask them are fools. And the people who tow the party line answers are cowards.
    But I am finding you answers not half as deep as your questions.

  • Chaim says:

    Simon – I want to summarize and clarify. There were many tangents here.. Many of my comments are clearly being misunderstood or just not read and I am being attacked by virtual Jews with apologetics… :)

    According to Chabad Chassidic philosophy:

    Belief in G-d or faith is a super-rational faculty of the soul not emotional. It is separate to but not contradictory to intellect.

    Many Jews do not want to accept this belief without irrefutable proof yet in other realms of knowledge eg science they do not hold to such strict requirement. I do not oppose science or its method. It is my occupation. Scientists themselves realize and admit to their own limitations and understand their knowledge is evolving. To believe blindly in it is absurd.

    Your philosophy, like any, is based on certain assumptions. G-d does not exist and the Torah was written and evolved over time by people. Then you find proofs and rationales to promote this. I don’t have a problem with your rationales or reasoning from that starting point although I clearly disagree with the initial assumptions.

    You do not need to belittle nor deny other philosophies because they don’t fit in with yours.

    I have been there too..

  • Firstly, Chaim: I wish to retract my last message, regarding the desire to defend religious Judaism. I wrote that in the haste that came with running out the door and did not mean to so directly imply that you were not a sufficiently “religious Jew”. While I might have no respect for the philosophy that you espouse, I meant no disrespect towards you.

    But you, Saki, have me rather perplexed. If there is an ounce of sincerity behind what you are writing then you are being remarkably obtuse. It should be patently obvious to anybody with a minimal degree of English comprehension that the above article is frivolous, and yet you seem to have decided that it constitutes the sum total of my theology and the full extent to which I have delved into these matters. As a result, you have come out with all guns blazing and, were you not packing such paltry ammunition, I might have been hit.

    I am going to respond to you here and I invite you to reply but, as we are now heading away from the basic core of the article itself, I also suggest that you might wish to email me as well. That is up to you, but my address is simon[at]benabuya[dot]com.

    You are bothered by my references to R’ Ginsburgh, so allow me to explain. He promotes himself as a scientific expert, which is remarkably easy to do when you consider the appalling scientific ignorance of those within his community. A Masters in mathematics is not sufficient formal training to be considered an expert in such matters and the world is full of people with greater expertise than his. They are not kabbalists.

    You seem to suggest that his bio (which is fantastic, and I invite all interested readers to see just how impressive it is) might not have been composed by him, because it treats of him in the 3rd person. That’s some solid analysis that you did there, but it is published on his website, and so I’m going to assume that it met with his seal of approval. In addition to drumming up his scientific background, it also makes the claim that he is this generation’s leading expert on mysticism. Oy gevalt.

    Maybe R’ Ginsburgh is truly an expert in kabbalah. Maybe he knows all of the classical kabbalistic texts off by heart, and maybe Elijah the prophet visits him in his bedchamber. Frankly, rather than assume that he is the great tzaddik that his followers profess him to be, I am going to judge him on the basis of the books that he writes and I am going to insist that he has an unhealthy obsession with gematria and, aside from that, not a lot of substance. That’s not libel, incidentally, it’s Lashon HaRa: things are only libel when they are false.

    I plan on writing a subsequent (and serious) post that concerns the Bible and so I am not going to labour readers with my opinions on that here. I will, however, say that your accusations concerning my inability to perceive the message of the Bible for the prose that houses it do not derive from the actual article itself. Given that they also do not stem from any of the statements that I have made on this thread, I am forced to assume that they originated with you.

  • Chaim says:

    Cyber Jew:

    To me whether G-d or mitzvos are good for humanity or even individual people is another topic not brought up originally. As I understood the article was about belief n G-d. This is what I addressed mo matter HOW BORING it is to you.

    And “experiences of the divine” could simply be hallucinations or seizures.



  • Saki says:

    I think we can both agree that he is at least familiar with mathmatics based on on the fact that he has a masters in mathematics. There is no reason to argue over wether he is an expert. As far as making fun of his bio, I looked on their website and it says the website is not Rabbi Ginsburghs creation but “Inner.org was started by Dovid Shirel, past-director of Gal Einai in 1995. Rabbi Moshe Genuth has been the webmaster since 2006.” and that “The Inner Dimension website was created and is maintained with the purpose of making Harav Ginsburgh’s teachings available on the internet.” So it is fair to assume that either Dovid Shirel or Rabbi Moshe Genuth wrote it, and it was approved by Rabbi Ginsburgh. But as you said the main core of the article is at hand, and surely Rabbi Ginsburgh’s mathematics credentials has nothing to do with it, so let’s order another round, and we will all be better Jews for it.

  • Chaim says:

    “While I might have no respect for the philosophy that you espouse”

    isn’t it interesting where true intolerance lies.

  • Chaim says:

    Kabbala / chassid thought and String Theory:

    Rabbi Dr. Naftali Berg: As a physicist he was a prominent award-winning researcher on the board of fame of the Army Research Laboratory of the Pentagon.


  • Michael says:

    Chaim — in terms of definitions of atheism, if you look it up in any credible source it will include #1 AND #2. When I encounter it defined as #2 only, it’s mostly theists trying to discredit atheism by presenting a strawman. However even if it was #2 only, I still can’t see how you can claim that atheists can’t exist. Surely there must be some people who believe there is no God?

    As for the intrinsic “why”, I still see no reason to think this is anything but a meaningless concept.

    Let’s be honest about what the Hebrew bible is trying to accomplish, its quite clear.

    Putting aside the fact that Simon wasn’t trying to be honest about what the Bible is trying to accomplish — I don’t see it as clear at all. Even a short, clear, 1 paragraph text like the Gettysburgh Address isn’t 100% clear about what it’s trying to do, let alone a collection of sacred literature written over centuries by a host of different authors with different agendas.

  • Chaim says:

    Yes Michael – you exist and you can be an atheist. Congratulations.

    If a meaningful life is a useless concept to you.. enjoy your life.

  • Michael says:

    A bit of equivocation there — I was of course talking about some intrinsic/ultimate “why” behind the universe (as I believe you acknowledged) not whether someone’s life can be meaningful. At no point were we talking about leading a meaningful life — why the switch?

  • Chaim says:

    I’m sorry. If there is no way to put that “intrinsic/ultimate “why” behind the universe” into something practical and personal then I agree it is a useless concept.

  • Saki says:

    Anyone who has read the Hebrew Bible cover to cover whether they find it abhorrent or uplifting will be able to notice that it is about God. Second and third may be love and law, or jews and the land, but it is quite clear that it is chiefly about God. I understood from his article that Simon was too busy catching a bus, or singing a song, or eating a shwarma with cheese to think about God, and frankly don’t really care. And even if there was a God, he is certainly not the God of the Hebrew Bible. However, at the same time Simon feels that he believes very much in Judaism. And that belief is that the Hebrew Bible is a genuine work of literary creativity. I find that train of thought inane, and I qualified it above. But as Simon explained “it should be patently obvious… that the above article is frivolous” and that I “seem to have decided that it constitutes the sum total of my theology and the full extent to which I have delved into these matters.” His critique is correct I am over simplifying his beliefs by assuming his only thoughts are a quick article he wrote, and for that I am sure he will forgive me, I am VERY positive that he thinks about these ideas more than the average bloke, that he is probably thinking about these ideas while he’s catching that bus, or singing that song, or eating that shwarma with cheese. He seems well read, precocious, and reasonable. I said he would be sharing the beliefs and ideas on God and the Hebrew Bible which this article is based on and only hinted at. And I certainly would love to have him over for shabbos, a couple beers, and multiple theist-shocking conversations.

  • The Bible, as Saki correctly points out, has a lot to do with God. I wouldn’t say that it is all about God because I don’t conceive of God in any of those instances where the character is not to be directly inferred. Books like Song of Songs and Esther, for example, have nothing to do with God; books like Ecclesiastes and Ruth, to provide two other examples, have references to God but God does not feature within them as a character. They are very different to books like Genesis and Leviticus, and the god in those books is also very different to the god that is presented in books like Chronicles.

    Very different again are the varying depictions of God in the Bible to the depictions of God in the Rabbinic literature, and this continues to change as we make our way further and further into the modern era. If you are inclined to believe that God is an objective reality and that each of these texts hit the nail on the head, then you will also be inclined to believe that they each present different characteristics simply because they each focus on different elements. If you are disinclined to believe that God is an objective reality, then you will perceive these differences, at best, to be the result of an evolving religion and, at worst, as being no different to the variations that exist between one religion and another.

    Chaim has an interesting philosophy. He seems to think that God is an objective reality but that, unless you use this reality to find practical and personal meaning in your life, it’s a rather useless concept. I think that such an outlook derives, not from a systematic appraisal of the evidence, but from the comfort that comes from living within a particular community of like-minded individuals, all of whom derive the same practical and personal meaning from the idea. Like most forms of serious religion, it’s an emotional choice and not an intellectual one.

    As I said before, I have no problem with people making emotional choices and, as I should also reiterate, I am not intending to show any disrespect towards Chaim as a person. He should therefore not get quite so upset about intolerance; his opinions are not that fragile.

  • cyberjew says:

    Hello hello,

    Chaim – good questions but too many of them! I am currently residing in Yerushalayim, so there’s a difference in time zone. Hence the delay.

    So there are a few points to respond to: Firstly, superstring theory is just a theory – but it’s a theory that is intended as a possible solution to a problem in theoretical physics (about which I know very little). When I say that you reject the method (which I had assumed from reading your responses), I didn’t mean that you rejected the data. I assume that you believe in gravity, maybe even atoms. But that’s not the point. Science is a method, and it is that overall approach – not the specific data – that you appear to be sceptical of. I, on the other hand, think that the method works wonderfully.

    But I do agree that science doesn’t answer all questions. Science helps us to understand and describe (and thus manipulate) the world more accurately. But it doesn’t necessarily offer answers to normative questions: How should I live? What is a good life? What are positive values? The descriptive data can help us to make wise decisions, so it has implications for normative questions, but it doesn’t respond to them directly. Those questions are addressed in different fields, like philosophy and religion.

    Re the Rambam: I too can quote the opening passage of Sefer Hamada’, but let me ask you this: When he says that God exists, what does he mean by that statement? If you look in Moreh Nevukhim, the question becomes a little more complicated (this is aleady in the Mishne Torah, but is much more fully developed in the Guide): God does not change, act, have any agency… In fact, the Rambam says that we only say that God “exists” because we don’t want to say the opposite – but the word “existence” in the sense that we use it for anything else doesn’t apply. It actually sounds vary similar to non-dualistic Buddhist philosophies that say things like “Nirvana is beyond both existence and non-existence…” Fundamentally, the God according to the Rambam is impersonal, abstract and transcendent. So how does he write books?

    So the Rambam doesn’t approach it from that angle. Instead of describing exactly how books themselves are written, he attacks the question of prophecy. (There’s a long bit on it in Moreh Nevukhim) Prophecy, according to the Rambam, is fundamentally a human endeavour – highly developed intellectual and imaginative thought. It works from the bottom upwards: Human to God. This is a famous makhloykes/disagreement between the Kuzari and the Rambam.

    But beyond all of this, I want to explain something very important: Any true Maimonidean must reject some things in the Rambam’s philosophy. He himself accepted scientific and philosophical method, and the fact is that philosophy and science have moved on. However, his approach to the mitzvot and understanding them remains deeply relevant, and I subscribe to it happily. I.e. He believes that mitzvot have a reason (in itself a reasonable assumption, since all social norms have some kind of reason), and that they fit into a broader social picture constucted by the Torah. The more I learn, the more I agree with this.

    And: I never said my opinions were those of the Rambam, just that they were based on his approach. I kind of like to have my own opinions. Life’s more fun that way.

    And: All I meant by saying that the discussion is boring, is that the question of whether or not God “actually exists” has been beaten to death over many centuries, and isn’t a very productive argument. Incidentally, it isn’t the topic of the above article either. It seems more to me (correct me if I’m wrong, Simon) a discussion of how one discusses these things and an attempt to distinguish between the different elements of the question of belief – with Simon articulating his own position in the process. That is, he distinguished between literal belief in the biblical God, belief in some kind of variation on a god (or maybe more than one) of some sort, and whether or not one ascribes value to Judaism/Torah. Three distinct questions that are usually conflated. He feels, and I agree, that they need not be conflated. But he implies (Simon? You there?) that kashruth is silly, even though it features in a book that he likes very much, and I think that kashruth is a good thing. I also ascribe more current authority to that book/Book, but that isn’t the discussion either.

    There ya go. Another bloody long response. Give me some breathing time between your comments, Chaim!

    Don’t forget to eat a hearty and nutritious breakfast every day.

  • Thanks, Cyberjew – those certainly were three different elements at play within my facetious article, and if it were a more serious article then it would have been the third element that I would have developed. I have no intention of proving or disproving the existence of God/gods because, like you, I think that the enterprise is a ridiculous one.

    I don’t think that keeping kashrut is silly, and I realise that it is considerably more complex than simply avoiding the combination of meat and milk. Besides, my shwarmas tend not to be kosher, so even if I were to add cheese (which, incidentally, sounds revolting to me anyway) it would not be that particular prohibition that I would be guilty of breaking.

    Kashrut features within a few of the Biblical books, but so do a variety of other practises that I can safely say that I do not agree with. I like some of the psycho-social reasons that can be applied to it, but I do not agree with the principles that are delineated within those texts themselves. That goes for a variety of mitzvot. It is perhaps beyond the scope of this thread, but Leibowitz’s (and, I suppose, Rav Soloveitchik’s) understanding of halakha as something that you do for no other reason than the fact that it is halakha is something that appeals the most to me. Most other attempts at legitimising it from the perspective of a contemporary hermeneutic smack of apologetics.

  • Chaim says:

    Simon – you are misinterpreting and misquoting me again.

    “G-d is an objective reality but that, unless you use this reality to find practical and personal meaning in your life, it’s a rather useless concept.”

    While yes he is an objective reality, I said finding “thy why” in the universe is a useless concept without a practical and personal consequence.

    As you your surmise that it is because I am part of a like minded community – I was neither born into nor brought up in this community. IN fact I had no idea Chabad existed for most of my life. It started with intellectual honesty and research and the faith I mentioned grew out of it. I am really not an emotional person.

    AGAIN I never tried to prove G-d existence. I can not. It is a useless pursuit. I explained about faith in G-d existence.

    CyberJew – I don’t know how to make this more clear – I do not reject the method. It does work wonderfully for its stated goals but like any method it has limitations.. Do you really think it is perfect?

    axiom: A self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof as the basis for argument; a postulate.

    I may be still understanding you. Is your point that D-d does not write books but that the Torah was given to Moshe who wrote it through prophecy? Is it still of divine origin? If so what is the chiddush? Again what about the first set of tablets?

    PS most lubavitchers learn 1 or 3 chapters of Rambam daily.

    PPS I am off to be with the Amish for the week so no computers. You have your reprieve from me. Simon – you can breathe.

    PPS I do personally like both of you in at least a virtual way. One day a beer would be nice. You could see I personally am not pushy nor do I proselytize, I like arguing to learn more and test my knowledge and beliefs only.

    5 veges and 2 fruit per day.

  • cyberjew says:

    Chaim –

    If that’s the case, I don’t quite understand your initial attack on science in which you placed it’s plausibility on equal par with that of religious faith. If emunah is understood as accepting certain empirical statements, I think that it fares much worse than science.

    But I don’t think that that is what the bulk of religious thought is – Torah consists in its majority of normative statements, that is, prescribed and proscribed practices. Also, the descriptive statements can almost always be understood on a phenomenological level (as expressions of wonderment at the world; as expressions of gratitude for being delivered from disaster, etc.). Science doesn’t do those things – it is not art, and it is not law. So yes, science has its limits. However, as I said, if we understand the world better (simple example: patterns of social behaviour that are harmful) that has normative implications (to discourage that kind of behaviour).

    Here is what I think might be our point of disagreement: Certain descriptive statements made by Chaza’l are simply incorrect: Take the famous sugya in Pesahim (94a? – I don’t have it in front of me, so I might have that a little off; and it goes onto the next amud) which describes the way in which the sun revolves around the earth, and whether or not it is above or below some kind of firmament when it ventures below the earth. On the one hand, they are attempting to explain phenomena that they see with their eyes, and it is not difficult to work out why they thought what they thought. On the other hand, Rebbi himself concedes that the Greek model is better, for it explains more of the observable data. So in some sense, they were wrong (but on the other hand we have a nice Talmudic example of a proto-Occam’s razor – or rather an awareness of what consitutes a good theory versus a bad theory). But a lot of frum people find this very troubling (I don’t) and do mental somersaults to try to defend the accuracy of such statements.

    Also, certain claims are simply not demonstrable or falsifiable in any sense. For example, reincarnation (a la chassidus/kabbalah) versus heaven-or-something (a la Saadya Gaon in Emunot ve-De’ot – and he openly and vehemently rejects belief in reincarnation) versus sometimes-no-afterlife (Rambam) versus no afterlive at all… Well, there is simply no empirical reason to believe anything at all. However, the burden of proof does lie with a person trying to make a positive claim.

    Anyway, I have a vague suspicion that the conversation on science/faith is going to start to become circular… Shall we move onto politics? Just kidding. Really.

    Re the Rambam: I’m neither equipped nor willing to explain his position on prophecy (and the authorship/transmission of Torah) here. But I will say this: the only way you can get a good understanding of his thought is to read as much of it as possible – including Moreh Nevukhim. And learn Sefer Hamada’ well. He uses two different methods of hiding his true opinion – in the Guide, he uses a system of contradictions (which is annoying – he explains it in the introduction), while in Sefer Hamada’ he just uses ambiguous language. I had a teacher in yeshivah who recommended learning them side by side – the Guide can be used as a sort of dictionary for the Mishneh Torah. And I know Lubavitchers learn a perek yomi, that’s very good. But it’s pretty much exclusively halakhah – which I think is a good thing too. Still, you won’t get his philosophy from that. (btw I also very much enjoy learning chassidus – it’s funny, in my mind I think that there are 3 little voices: One of an angry little misnagged; one of slightly shiker khusid; and one of a perfectly enlightened Taoist fish. Well, that description will surely confirm anyone’s suspicion that religion is rational…) And don’t worry, Chaim: You’re not trying to khapp me, and I’m not trying to apikorsify you. Still, if you want to understand the Rambam more broadly, you gotta read him.

    Anyway, we should all be zoykhe to chill out and expand our minds.

    Enjoy the Amish, Chaim.

  • Chaim says:

    Cyber Jew – back. the Amish were very interesting, although that is another topic..

    My only comment about science was that it TOO had at its foundation axioms = A self-evident principle or one that is accepted as true without proof. ie although rationally, intellectually and even support by unbiased experimentation, there is a certain amount of faith involved.

    It is hard to explain sugiyas like that. the easy way is that they were wrong. The trouble is how you understand Divrei Elokin chaim.. this is why some people do intellectual gymnastics to explain it. Either way could be right – who knows.

    Yes we don’t have to get into philosophy but you did dodge a direct questions.

    Simon stated he didn’t believe in G-d and then made up different definitions of the G-ds he did not believe in. He had some limited knowledge of chassidus and Kaballah and states he doesn’t believe in that G-d either.

    He is an academic. He makes a hypothesis and searches for proof to support it. Is he correct? I can not disprove him. I just follow my faith which is based on revelation and the oral and written transmission of millions of people throughout thousands of years. He follows his faith.

    People should just not fool themselves into thinking every decision, philosophy is purely based on logic, reasoning and proof. Otherwise they get fixed, stubborn and instead of supporting possible alternative views they just belittle and dismiss them. And they become blind to criticism and disproofs.

    I found someone well versed in Kaballah to show a connection between string theory (not that I full believe in it) and he dismissed him as not being accredited. So I found a physicist… He misinterprets or misquotes me.. maybe his opinions are that fragile.

  • Leo Braun says:

    • It may seem logical, in retrospect, that a combination of awe and rebellion made Einstein exceptional as a scientist. But what is less well known is that those two traits also combined to shape his spiritual journey and determine the nature of his faith. The rebellion part comes in at the beginning of his life: he rejected at first his parents’ secularism and later the concepts of religious ritual and of a personal God who intercedes in the daily workings of the world. But the awe part comes in his 50s when he settled into a deism based on what he called the “spirit manifest in the laws of the universe” and a sincere belief in a “God who reveals Himself in the harmony of all that exists”.

    Einstein descended on both parents’ sides from Jewish tradesmen and peddlers who had, for at least two centuries, made modest livings in the rural villages of Swabia in southwestern Germany. With each generation they had become increasingly assimilated into the German culture they loved–or so they thought. Although Jewish by cultural designation and kindred instinct, they had little interest in the religion itself. In his later years, Einstein would tell an old joke about an agnostic uncle who was the only member of his family who went to synagogue. When asked why he did so, the uncle would respond, “Ah, but you never know”!

    Einstein’s parents, on the other hand, were “entirely irreligious”. They did not keep kosher or attend synagogue, and his father Hermann referred to Jewish rituals as “ancient superstitions”, according to a relative. Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parents did not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead he went to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood. As the only Jew among the 70 students in his class, he took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended up enjoying it immensely.

    Despite his parents’ secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. “He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail”, his sister recalled. He ate no pork, kept kosher and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath. He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school.

    Einstein’s greatest intellectual stimulation came from a poor student who dined with his family once a week. It was an old Jewish custom to take in a needy religious scholar to share the Sabbath meal; the Einsteins modified the tradition by hosting instead a medical student on Thursdays. His name was Max Talmud, and he began his weekly visits when he was 21 and Einstein was 10. Max brought Einstein science books, including a popular illustrated series called People’s Books on Natural Science, “a work which I read with breathless attention”, said Einstein. The 21 volumes were written by Aaron Bernstein, who stressed the interrelations between biology and physics, and reported in great detail the experiments being done at the time, especially in Germany.

    Max also helped Einstein explore the wonders of mathematics by giving him a textbook on geometry two years before he was scheduled to learn that subject in school. When Max arrived each Thursday, Einstein delighted in showing him the problems he had solved that week. Initially, Max was able to help him, but he was soon surpassed by his pupil. “After a short time, a few months, he had worked through the whole book”, Max recalled. “Soon the flight of his mathematical genius was so high that I could no longer follow”.

    Einstein’s exposure to science and math produced a sudden transformation at age 12, just as he would have been readying for a bar mitzvah. He suddenly gave up Judaism. That decision does not appear to have been drawn from Bernstein’s books because the author made clear he saw no contradiction between science and religion. As he put it, “The religious inclination lies in the dim consciousness that dwells in humans that all nature, including the humans in it, is in no way an accidental game, but a work of lawfulness that there is a fundamental cause of all existence”.

    Einstein would later come close to these sentiments. But at the time, his leap away from faith was a radical one. “Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of free thinking coupled with the crushing impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies!

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