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Religion necessary, God optional

January 14, 2010 – 11:13 pm15 Comments
If anyone values tradition, it's the Fiddler*

If anyone values tradition, it's the Fiddler*

By Harold Zwier

Do you believe in God?

Let’s not beat about the burning bush here. Do you believe there is a creator of the universe who responds to each of us personally, runs the universe justly, will ultimately raise the dead, requires all of us to follow a set of immutable rules of behaviour, and requires us to acknowledge our belief in worship, prayer and praise?

If the idea of answering this question with a single two or three letter word makes you uncomfortable in any way, these thoughts may be of interest.

Religions encompass a good deal more than God. Anti-religionists probably agree, pointing to appalling acts of destruction, desecration, intolerance, indoctrination, massacre, misogyny, abuse, xenophobia, hatred and a host of other failures that have occurred in the name of religions over millennia.

In his book, “The Persistence of Faith”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that “the history of most religious groups at most times when they held political power” was the use of faith “to deny rights to others on the grounds of faith”. That criticism is as valid today as it ever was.

The perceived failures of religions provide ammunition for those who want to argue that we are better off without them, but there is another contrary perspective.

Although some might be tempted to argue that the defining characteristics of religions are represented by God, Revelation and Truth, there is a much more ordinary aspect to religions that is also much more important.

Religions have provided a mechanism for guarding and transmitting collective memories. Not the dry history of our school days, but the living essence of a community that educates and integrates each new generation into the community, connects us to a shared past, provides communal structures with values, rules, responsibilities and a path to nurture the next generation.

Religions are not the only guardians of collective memory. Politics, academia, television and consumerism are also examples of sub-cultures in which shared memory and experience shape individuals and communities. But since we describe Australian society as having been founded on Judeo-Christian principles, we are essentially affirming the success of religions in transmitting collective memory over millennia. That success is intimately bound to the idea of God.

If each generation finds its sense of transcendence in the mysteries it perceives as being beyond explanation, then the shape of God changes as past mysteries are explained and new mysteries are revealed. The biblical image of an all knowing and all powerful guide was very human in shape. With much better understanding of the origin of our universe, our solar system, our planet and the way life has developed, the shape of God has now changed. The mysteries beyond the explanation of our generation are on the other side of the Big Bang, and the shape of those mysteries is not very human.

But regardless of our concept of the transcendent, we stand on the shoulders of past generations. From them we acquire depth through the collective memory of tradition, culture, language, music, myth, ritual, moral and ethical behaviour, dignity, responsibility, wisdom, beauty, good, evil and a host of other elements that help define us individually and communally.

Many of us consciously belong to a religion in which rituals, traditions and rules form part of the communal environment. To reject the divine origin of the laws and rituals, yet remain engaged, is irrational. But if we act rationally and reject the laws and rituals, then we are essentially rejecting the collective memory on which our community is built. And if we attempt to reconcile our dilemma by reshaping God then we are heretics.

Of course, this is only a problem if the question posed at the beginning of this article can’t be comfortably answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. And if religions were the only area of our lives where we abandon rationality, then this problem might be a real dilemma, but everything from love to politics and the deeply held beliefs of sport manifest irrationality. Irrationality is after all a feature of being human.

Pamela Bone, for many years a columnist in The Age newspaper, died in April 2008. She described herself as an atheist, but chose to have her funeral in a church. She wrote this for her funeral program:

“It may seem hypocritical, after I have spent many years of my life in journalism writing columns about the harm done by religion, to want to have a funeral in a church. I go to my death without any sense that God exists or that there is an afterlife. However, I love old hymns, religious poetry, church spires … I am a cultural Christian.”

If religious fundamentalists have an unhealthy fixation on the past, and those who have abandoned religion see the past as having little relevance, we need another path for those who are uncomfortable with the certainties of religious belief but who recognise that religions, through their collective memory, provide valuable structures that span the past, present and future.

With the process of social globalisation having a major effect on our communal landscape, the one constant is our fundamental humanity; the petty, the heroic and everything in-between. Our collective memory provides a prism through which we can judge the value of change and how we can adapt to it, how we can ensure continuity and still retain or advance the core values that transcend generations.

Perhaps it’s time to put aside questions of belief in God, heaven and hell, whether there is an afterlife (or for that matter, a beforelife), whether the origin myths of religions have any basis in fact, why bad things happen to good people, and instead concentrate on the heritage of the collective memory left to us by each of our traditions, strive to understand why the values we have inherited are important to us and recognise that for many people adherence to those values is not motivated by the fear of heaven.

A version of this article was originally published on ABC Unleashed. The present article was published here on the author’s request.

Harold Zwier is on the executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society and is a member of a Modern Orthodox synagogue.

*Image source: Arc-Theatre

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  • Chaim says:

    Nice article.
    Thank you.

    I do think we need to see religion as being (or should be being) a positive force in society (charity, compassion, support) and individually (dealing with chaos, change, anxiety, relationships, personality improvement). This can get easily lost in the rituals and laws which people hide behind and get consumed by and yet remain nasty human beings as is evident from the multiple news stories.
    For me truth in religion is evident by the actual practice of those involved (in general).

  • Ittay says:

    religion without out god requires us to “concentrate on the heritage of the collective memory left to us by each of our traditions”
    its a wonderful idea, but everyone remembers differently. Furthermore, the way we remember and implement the values we have inherited differs so greatly, that we are  may be opening the door to this type of postmodern Judaism that makes very little sense.

  • Michael says:

    One of the problems with placing importance on the connection to ritual is that most religions have rituals that stem from horrible ideas as well as the more traditionally-warm-and-fuzzy rituals.

  • Michael says:

    Chaim — that’s a horrible story but reading it makes me think the man was simply insane, it doesn’t seem religiously motivated.

  • While thinking about this post, I reminded myself that just a few weeks ago we celebrated Chanukah. During the times of the second Temple, the Hellenists wanted the Jews to embrace the cultural and academic aspects of their religion, and to discard that small bit about God and the inherent Divinity associated with Judaism. If they had been “successful”, the culture would have wittled away to nothing in just a few generations, and Jews would have assimilated away.

    God is the foundation of the Jewish religion. Take that away, and the rest has little basis for the sort of continuity that Judaism has enjoyed.

  • Eli says:

    Just a thought. If  I believe in G-d does that make me religious? Perhaps it should be G-d necessary, religion optional

  • Harold Zwier says:

    The article I wrote may be of general interest, but is not specifically aimed at people who are certain about their faith in a personal God. It seems to me that there is an etiquette in the modern orthodox community that avoids asking questions such as “Do you believe in God?”. Yet this question, together with the answer “yes” is regarded as an essential component of the US political system.

    But in our community the name we acquire is based on our perceived contribution to the community in which we live – not on statements of belief. The article does not advocate the abandonment of faith, rather it tries to explore the complexity and diversity of our engagement with religion.

    Collective memory is not a series of factual recollections of our history. It is an all embracing collective process that turns an infant born to Jewish parents, into a Jew in a Jewish community with an awareness of all the preceding generations. In that process, the unique individuality of each person dominates their interaction with the community and how they contribute to the generations that follow.

    There are a couple of stories that influenced my thoughts about the issue of religion, collective memory and God. One of them is about the greatest apikoris in the world and a maskil who wanted to learn at his feet. The other is a story by I.L Peretz, “Oyb Nit Hekher” (If Not Higher),  which, I am told came from an earlier chasidic story (I got this version from http://www.myjewishlearning.com/culture/2/Literature/

    This is the story of a Litvak–a skeptical Lithuania Jew–who is determined to disprove the fervent belief of the Hasidim of Nemirov that their charismatic rebbe ascends to heaven during the Ten Days of Penitence to plead with God on their behalf. Sneaking into the Nemirov rabbi’s room one night and hiding under his bed, the Litvak sees the rabbi arising before dawn, dressing himself in peasant clothes and going into the woods. There the rabbi chops up a tree with an axe and takes the bundle of wood to the broken-down shack of a sick, old woman. Pretending to be Vasil, a peasant, he brings the wood inside and proceeds to make a fire in the oven. And as he puts each stick of wood into the oven, he recites a part of the day’s selichos or penitential prayers. After witnessing this anonymous act of charity, the Litvak becomes a disciple of the rabbi, and thereafter, whenever he hears a Hasid mention that during the Ten Days of Penitence the rabbi of Nemirov goes up to heaven, the Litvak adds quietly, “if not higher.”

  • Chaim says:

    That was my point – it is not about the beliefs themselves but rather how that belief affects your life particularly your actions and relationships. Jonathon Sacks discusses this well regarding faith and comparing it to love…
    The story I tagged above proved to me that this guy did not believe in G-d, only himself and his desires whereas the one Harold brought shows how beliefs totally effect this Rebbe’s life in a physical and practical way for good.
    The benefit of the actual belief in G-d in my opinion is that you can believe that you can reach extraordinary heights and  abilities compared to if you thought that you were limited by your “self”.
    By reaching and relying on something far greater than yourself, you overestimate your abilities but actually accomplish far more than you or anyone would have thought was possible.

  • Chaim says:

    By the way, I am currently and temporarily living in the USA and what blew me away from the moment I stepped in the country was how pervasive patriotism and  religion were (and how interconnected they were).
    Yet in the US and I daresay in American Christianity (from my experience), religion is essentially only about faith as opposed to Judaism, as we know it, which is essentially about deed. This is evident from the multitude of scandals involving religious, conservative politicians or leaders.

  • ariel says:

    Harold brings an interesting idea that “It seems to me that there is an etiquette in the modern orthodox community that avoids asking questions such as “Do you believe in God?””
    I once heard a Modern Orthodox rabbi lament how many Jews answer yes to this question and similarly, answer “yes” to the question “Do you make kiddush on Friday night?”
    But when asked “Why do you make kiddush on Friday night?”, they answer “tradition” or “custom” without realsing that for a Jew, the reason behind kiddush is ultimately G-d.

  • rachsd says:

    If belief in God is the centre of religion, it begs the question: what type of belief, what type of God?

    Even within the Jewish tradition alone, there are many ideas as to what God is, and what belief entails, ranging from rationalist to mystical. Judaism is much less prescriptive regarding what one should believe, than in regards to how to act.

    From my point of view, this is a great advantage for Judaism: it means that there is a great deal of freedom of thought and conscience which means that individuals can hold different ideas of God within the same tradition but also means that a person can develop different ideas of God throughout their lifetime. At least in theory, this freedom should also be a good facilitator for the development of ideas about God.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Or to put  more simply, and as my late Father used to say,  heaven is what you make  life here on earth.

    And didn’t Hillel once say that Judaism is all about not doing to others that you would not want to be done to you?

    Collective memory? I don’t know; I would rather call it common descency. And rituals? well, that’s like supporting your football club.

    In regard to there being a Creator, Woody Allen has explored that to the fullest.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    P. S.  We Jews haven’t stopped wondering, about everything, since we left Egypt. You see, life, G’d, religion, it’s all one big metaphor.

  • ariel says:

    Henry, you remind me of Woody Allen’s commentary on the Akeida (Binding of Isaac).

    He details in length and with passion the entire episode and at the last second he declares that the angel calls out “Abraham, Abraham! What’s the matter? Can’t you take a joke?”

  • Henry Herzog says:

    ariel, the ram would have preferred that G’d wasn’t such a comedian.

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