|Ask Rabbi Simmons|
How do you feel about the fact that although I'm a Jew, I'm an agnostic?
I love the Jewish people, traditions, culture, food, sense of humor, music, etc. And I want my son to be aware of these and of our history. But I don't quite buy the traditional image of God, sorry all. Figured if I'm going to be blasted for my doubts, it may as well be by a Rabbi!
I'm proud to be a Jew. We had a Jewish wedding and our son was circumcised. He went to a Jewish pre-school and I'm considering having him Bar Mitzvah'd. My husband's father was Bar Mitvah'd, by the way, and he was a staunch atheist.
"How do you feel about the fact that although I'm a Jew, I'm an agnostic?" I feel great that you chose to write and articulate your thoughts!
But, truthfully, my feelings are irrelevant on the matter. Rather, the essential questions are:
How do you feel about being an agnostic?
2) How does God feel about you being an agnostic?
Now let me give you some ways to help you answer them.
To connect with God, there are two aspects: Your head and your heart. And really, both need to be operating in tandem for the right connection to occur.
From the intellectual standpoint, there are many rational "proofs" of God's existence. For example, we all know about the law of conservation of energy, and of course something cannot come from nothing, so... when speaking about the physical matter that exploded at the Big Bang, where did that matter come from?
Or... The Gestapo officers believed they were doing the right thing. And the German public supported the idea they were doing the right thing. So on what basis did the international tribunal hang the Nazis at Nuremberg?
The answer is that deep down, we believe in a greater system. Something above and beyond the determination of mortal man.
Yet how is this statement possible if there is no supernal being above man? If there is no God, then we've imagined the existence of a higher authority. So how can we hang people for not being aware of a non-existent system that others imagine? Even further, the Nazis actually believed they'd tapped into a higher system. Is the only difference that we happened to win the war, so therefore we can impose our subjective morality?
For more discussion of this sort, I recommend an excellent book called "Permission to Believe" by Lawrence Keleman (Feldheim 1990). It contains straight-forward arguments for the existence of God, and includes a section on Torah and Science.
Now what about the emotional aspect of connecting with God?
In Deut. 4:39, the Torah says: "You shall KNOW this day, and understand it well in your HEART, that the Almighty is God, in the heaven above and the earth below, there is none other." (This verse is also contained in the prayer, "Aleynu.")
This tells us that it is not enough to simply know God in your head, you must also understand it in your heart! In a sense, emotional knowledge is much more profound than intellectual knowledge, because this knowledge can infuse every moment with an awareness of God.
Here is a true story:
Many people who visit Jerusalem are tourists who come to get a sense of Jewish culture and history. One day, a young tourist named Jeff was brought in to meet Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the dean of Aish HaTorah.
"What are you doing?" Rabbi Weinberg asked him.
"I'm working for my MBA at Harvard University. And I'm an atheist."
"Fantastic! A real atheist! Whoever was able to convince an atheist like you to speak to a rabbi like me deserves a medal."
"Nah," Jeff says, "he doesn't deserve anything. I'll tell you how I came..."
Jeff had been in Norway, visiting his Norwegian fiancé. And he decided it was now or never: either he is going to come to Israel or he'll never make it.
So he headed for Jerusalem. He figured he would stop by the Western Wall to see some old stones. Yet upon his arrival he was amazed. He felt something heavy. He was moved.
Jeff stood before the Wall, and made up an atheist's prayer. He looked at the stones and said:
"God, I don't believe in You. As far as I know, You don't exist. But I do feel something. So if I'm making a mistake, I want You to know, God, I have no quarrel against You. It's just that I don't know that You exist. But God, just in case You're really there and I'm making a mistake, get me an introduction."
Jeff finished his prayer, and one of the Aish students who happened to be at the Wall, saw Jeff and thought, "Perhaps he'd be interested in learning some Torah."
He tapped Jeff on the shoulder, startling him so much that he jumped three feet in the air. Jeff whirled around and shouted, "What in the blankety-blank-dash-bang do you want?!"
"I'm sorry. I just want to know if you'd like to learn about God."
That question hit Jeff like a 2-by-4 right between the eyes. He had just finished asking God for an introduction, and immediately he'd got such an offer.
Jeff learned at Aish HaTorah for the next six weeks, and went back to the States with a renewed Jewish commitment. A year later, Jeff came back to Israel and told Rabbi Weinberg the end of his story:
During that previous summer he had been meandering through the cobblestone alleyways of the Old City when he saw a pretty, sweet, religious girl walk by. He said to himself, "Look at the charm of this Jewish woman. May the Almighty help me meet someone like this."
One Shabbat morning during the next year, Jeff entered a synagogue in Boston for prayer services. Standing there was the same young woman he had seen in the Old City. He made his way over to her and said:
"Excuse me, but I believe I saw you last summer in Jerusalem."
She answered, "You're right. I saw you, too."
They are now married and living in New Jersey.
Remember Jeff's prayer. Because when you are sincere with God, He listens very carefully. As King David wrote: "The Almighty is near to all those who call unto Him in truth" (Psalms 145:18).
Of course, if you want to build this relationship with God, you'll need a proper framework. Friday evening is a good time to reduce the outside static and get in touch with your inner self. Don't watch any TV or listen to the radio. (And if you're really bold, unplug the phone.) You could invite some friends over, prepare a nice meal, light the Shabbat candles, and enjoy the solitude.
Any relationship is built on communication, and communication has to come from the heart. God yearns to give us the pleasure of connection.
The Talmud says that God made Sarah, Rivka and Rachel barren, so that they would turn to Him in prayer. You can pray in any language. Aloud.
To help you start, here's an opening line, written by my cousin, Leibel Rudolph o.b.m.:
Give me the courage to let go,
And let you in.
I know you love me.
And with your help,
I will find all the purpose, joy, and happiness
You want me to have.
Finally, it's great that you want to give your son a Bar Mitzvah. But it's only fair that you teach him the foundations of Judaism: God, Torah, Mitzvot, etc.
Historically, any Jewish group which denied the basic principles of Jewish tradition -Torah and Mitzvah-observance - ultimately ceased to be part of the Jewish people. The Saducees and the Karites, for instance, refused to accept certain parts of the Oral Law, and soonafter broke away completely as part of the Jewish People. The Hellenists, secularists during the Second Temple period, also soon became regarded as no longer "Jewish."
Eventually, these groups vanished completely. Early Christians were the original "Jews for Jesus." They accepted the Divine revelation of the Torah, but not it's eternal, binding nature. Initially, these Jewish "reformers" were reliable in their Kashrut, and counted in a Minyan. But the turning point came when Paul, realizing that Jews wouldn't accept the concept of a dead Messiah, opened up membership to non-Jews. At that point, these "Jews" experienced a total severing of Jewish identity.
The question is: Will the type of Judaism that you choose for your son last for future generations?
I think you would benefit from attending a Discovery seminar. It's an excellent presentation of God's ongoing interconnectedness with Jewish history and philosophy. Discovery is given in hundreds of cities throughout the world; a current schedule is at http://discoveryseminar.org/Info/schedule.htm
You have to find out of God exists. Because if He does, then He exists for the agnostic, too.With blessings from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons