Hey David Baddiel, Judaism does count
This week, Baddiel features in the Jewish Chronicle (https://www.thejc.com/lets-talk/all/thank-god-i’m-an-atheist-and-so-is-my-rabbi-5gFt9z0F5GiZngwxiosj4M), the leading UK Jewish newspaper, promoting his new book, ‘The G-d Desire’, a self-described attempt to understand the phenomenon of his own Jewish atheism.
In it, he points to survey data showing that over 50% of Jews doubt the existence of G-d, which compares unfavorably with 10-15% among adherents of other faiths.
He goes on to describe Orthodox Judaism as “an enormous manual, a huge list of dos and don’ts… in which [G-d’s] function can seem mainly symbolic.. [so] the point of Judaism, in fact, may be observance, almost as an end in itself.”
Then for good measure, Baddiel proceeds to ridicule certain mitzvot and imply praise for Christianity by contrast!
With a Cambridge University background, Baddiel is intelligent, thoughtful and inquisitive. Yet despite all this intelligence, thinking and inquisitiveness, he doesn’t seem to have picked up on the millennia of Jewish inquiry into the nature and purpose of Judaism.
It seems for Baddiel, then, that Judaism doesn’t count.
But it is pointless to make this polemic about Baddiel himself. It would be easy as a religious person to be outraged by these comments, but Baddiel is merely reflective of the majority of Jews today, not to mention the broader non-Jewish world, who don’t seem to have a meaningful sense of what Judaism is really about, why it manifests itself in the way that it does (i.e. mitzvah-intensive), and what is its ‘value proposition’ compared with other religions and philosophies.
We should look at ourselves, as we often already do, and at the state of Jewish education and kiruv (often translated as ‘outreach’ but more accurately, and literally, ‘bringing close’ those who are distant), to understand what is missing.
For the religious among us in particular, we have a duty to make Judaism accessible and motivating to those who have not yet started their journey of exploration into their unique heritage.
Speaking humbly for my part, during my own journey as a baal teshuva, I have always felt the gap is a concise readily accessible explanation, in plain language, that answers clearly the basic questions ordinary people have when approaching religion, and specifically Judaism, which is accessible and motivating even without any prior belief, knowledge, or deference to our sages and traditions.
I am a novice, and I no doubt still make many mistakes in my understanding of our faith, in both its revealed and hidden dimensions, so I stand to be corrected in all my remarks.
Here for now, though, is my best effort to formulate this kind of basic explanation of what makes Judaism different and special, based on the understanding I have developed to date.
1. The first source of doubt that ordinary people experience when they consider religion is an instinctive deference to science, especially when the qualitative exposure to religion they had experienced as a child was equivalent to ‘fairy stories’. However, the existence of G-d cannot be subject to the observations of natural science. Natural science is inherently limited to the study of the material world. G-d is not material. Therefore G-d cannot be identified through scientific method. If there is no possibility to identify G-d through observation, then there can be no conclusion based on scientific method whether G-d exists or does not exist. Neither Dawkins nor any other scientific atheist can by definition provide proof of the existence or the non-existence of G-d. Based on the natural sciences alone, we remain rooted in a static agnosticism. Through the natural sciences alone, we cannot reach either atheism or belief.
2. It is noted that the usual scientific ‘disproofs’ of the existence of G-d are usually in fact disproofs of a strictly literalist reading of the story of creation. Other faiths, and even some prominent Jewish thinkers, may hold for a literalist reading of creation, but this is not a measuring stick for the validity of Judaism. The second comment on the biblical text made by Rashi – universally acknowledged in Judaism as the greatest of all Torah commentators – is a lengthy disproof of the notion that Genesis 1 is setting out a literalist account of creation, concluding with the emphatic statement: “you must now admit that Torah teaches us nothing about the actual sequence of creation.”
3. Moreover, ‘science’ can be wrong. Natural science works on experimentation and observation, generating inductive conclusions that at any time stand to be disproven. It is interesting to note that the Big Bang theory, reflecting the contemporary consensus among scientists on how the universe originated, was only established in the mid-20th century. For millennia prior to this, ‘science’ held that the universe was eternal. In fact, prominent 20th century scientists, in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the universe does indeed have an origin, nonetheless pushed back against the Big Bang theory for many years because they were concerned it might validate religion! ‘Science’ is therefore very much a work in progress and is subject to its own ideological biases, just as much as anything else.
4. By contrast, a stronger Jewish affirmation of the existence of G-d, and of Judaism itself, is premised on history. While Jews proclaim the revelation at Sinai as the founding moment of our covenant with G-d, again, the capacity of science to ‘prove’ that the Sinaitic revelation happened, or even the ‘biblical criticism’ that seeks to ‘prove’ the Torah is a composite document written over many centuries, is not a measuring stick for the validity of Judaism.
5. Rather, the existence of the universal One G-d, and the validity of Judaism as a covenant He made with a specific people, is shown through the great arc of the history of the Jews. This is what it means when the Jewish people are called ‘witnesses for G-d’ (see, for example, Isaiah 43:10,12). Our history is itself a proof of G-d’s existence. What is meant by this?
6. Our scriptures outline how, by any account (whether the Jewish account or alternative ‘scientific’ accounts), thousands of years ago, promises were made in the name of G-d to the Children of Israel about what will happen to them, for better and, unfortunately, also for worse. (These promises permeate Torah and Prophets – see this week’s haftarah from Amos as a case in point)… And then over thousands of years, and through to the present day, these promises were realized… And they continue to be realized.
7. The Children of Israel, at the time, were one of hundreds, if not thousands, of small tribal groupings in the ancient Middle East. They were otherwise indistinct, apart from their descendancy through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Not only have these promises been realized for that small tribal grouping of Israelites (and their remnant, the Jewish people), no similar such history – not even remotely so – has happened for any other small tribal grouping from that era, all of which have disappeared from the scene along with the larger imperial forces that at one time or another tried to eliminate Judaism (Ancient Egypt, plus the ‘four kingdoms’ of Babel, Persia, Ancient Greece and Rome).
8. Therefore, it is this capacity for incontestably ancient Jewish scripture to chart the unique path of the Jewish people throughout the ages and into the present day that is the proof of G-d’s existence as far as Judaism is concerned. It is the only plausible explanation for how such promises could have been made and fulfilled for the Jewish people alone, and not even closely for any of the other hundreds or thousands of tribes or powers of that era.
9. Now that a Jewish foundation for the existence of G-d and the validity of Judaism has been presented, we can proceed to explain in as simple terms as possible the Jewish conception of G-d vis-a-vis the world. Ordinary people know there is a world. But they can’t directly see, touch, or otherwise experience G-d. Why?
10. As far as I have come to understand so far, and imperfectly, the uniquely Jewish concept of tzimtzum (G-d’s concealment from the material world) and the broader proposition of panentheism (i.e. the material world is contained within G-d), which is understood to underpin the basic worldview of all major streams of Orthodox Judaism, is the most powerful reconciliation that I know of a material world with the omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence of a non-material G-d.
11. Judaism understands G-d’s concealment to be a kindness, a sign of love, for humanity. If G-d were not concealed, we could not have separate existence from Him. We could not have free will or identity as everything would be subsumed by Him. G-d wants free people to freely choose to know and connect with Him, and with each other. This is what G-d’s love means.
12. The nature of G-d’s concealment from the material world and the proposition of a panentheistic reality provide the foundation for understanding the function of the mitzvot and the unique ‘value proposition’ of Judaism.
13. G-d is concealed from our material world. His non-material presence fills the world but He is separate from it. This is the meaning of holiness, of being present but at the same time separate and concealed – transcendent.
14. G-d stands behind impersonal laws of nature that shape what happens in the world. He gives us intelligence to understand and decide how we live within this world, calling on us both ‘to fill, subdue and rule over it’ (Genesis 1) and also ‘to work and protect it’ (Genesis 2). When we exercise our will, to freely decide how to live in the world, we are subject to the laws of nature.
15. However, when we decide what to do on the basis of our own will, we have an unfortunate tendency to mess things up – hence the ‘palace in flames’ metaphor in the midrashic account of Avraham Avinu’s ‘discovery’ of G-d. Avraham sees a palace in flames (i.e. the world) and calls out, ‘who is the owner of the palace’? G-d says ‘Here I am’.
16. G-d therefore provided the children of Avraham with a ‘manual of actions’ (i.e. the mitzvot contained in the Torah) that people can perform to connect with His concealed presence and thereby fix up the ‘palace’ (i.e. the world). How does this work?
17. With His primordial tzimtzum, G-d concealed Himself to create space for human free will in the material world. When we follow the manual (i.e. perform the mitzvot), we perform a ‘reverse tzimtzum’ by suspending our will in order to create space for Him in the material world.
18. Specifically, because we nullify our will before His will when following His ‘manual of actions’, we become the vehicle for the infusion of His immanent presence into the world – we are carrying out His will in the world, and as a result, we can go beyond human fallibility and with His help, fix up that ‘palace’.
19. The building of the tabernacle in the desert, which occupies the latter parts of the Book of Exodus, is, in this sense, the prototype for all other mitzvot. When the Children of Israel ‘followed the manual’ for building the tabernacle, according to G-d’s very precise instructions, Torah tells us how it caused the literal descent of G-d’s immanence into the world for the first time since the primordial withdrawal of that immanence from the Garden of Eden.
20. G-d’s kindness knows no bounds. Thus, as a reward specifically to the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were His exceptional servants, His manual gives us a way of connecting with Him, carrying out His will and bringing His immanence into the world, through every sphere of human existence (as per Proverbs, ‘know Him in all your ways and He shall direct your paths’): what we eat, how we structure family life, how we dress, how we treat other people, the way we use our time, the way we do business, the way we use our money, and so forth. (These actions are laid out throughout Torah, but they are crystallized in the ‘holiness code’ of Leviticus, starting with the laws of kosher foods in the latter parts of Parshat Shemini.)
21. This may help to explain the sequencing of what many find to be the most ‘boring’ parts of Torah, after the exodus, but before the journey to the Land. First, G-d sets out the prototype for the mitzvot with the building of the tabernacle (Exodus), then G-d expands on this prototype by explaining the main rituals to be performed within this tabernacle (early Leviticus), then (middle of Leviticus) G-d sets out the ways in which the Jewish people across all dimensions of their human existence can replicate this prototype in every place and in every era, and finally (end of Leviticus), in the portion of the blessings and curses, G-d tells us what is at stake.
22. In other words, what appears as a never-ending list of dos and don’ts is in fact the continuous opportunity that G-d provides to us to connect with Him and infuse His immanence into the world as a means to help fix it up.
23. The converse is also true. There are curses as well as blessings. The greater the extent to which the Jewish people ignore or contravene the mitzvot, and also importantly, the greater the extent to which the Jewish people take credit themselves for the flow of benefits G-d has provided in order that we be His witnesses, the greater G-d’s subsequent withdrawal, and the greater the exposure to danger the Jewish people – still small and powerless except for His grace – face from the larger and more powerful nations of the world.
24. G-d’s instructions to the Jewish people when building the tabernacle were incredibly precise. The more precision, the easier it was for the Children of Israel to nullify their will before His will. And conversely, the less precision that G-d provides in the manual, the more gaps there are which provide scope for people to reimpose their own will at the expense of G-d’s.
25. This is why many of the mitzvot are ‘supra-rational’ (This does not mean they are irrational but rather, they are not subject to rationality). These are mitzvot like not eating pork, not mixing wool and linen, not mixing meat and milk, which we cannot explain in ordinary ethical or scientific terms. Building on the understanding explained above, the supra-rational mitzvot are the ‘easiest’ mitzvot to perform. Because we cannot apply our own understanding as to why, for example, we are not allowed to eat pork, we find it easier to nullify our will before His, and refrain from so doing.
25. By contrast, when it comes to the rational mitzvot – which are generally, but not always, the mitzvot involving obligations to other people – we think we understand why we should not murder, not steal, give charity, honor our parents, etc. Therefore, we apply our own understanding to define how we should carry out these mitzvot. This provides more scope for us to reinsert our own will, rather than carrying out His will, when performing these mitzvot. This is where we can go wrong, as even King Solomon – proclaimed as the wisest of all men in scripture – demonstrated.
26. In this sense, perhaps, G-d may have given us the supra-rational mitzvot, the cause today of so much doubt and derision, as a means of training. G-d knows that left to our own devices with only the rational mitzvot, we will gradually subvert them to perform our own will, not His. Therefore, we train ourselves through the supra-rational mitzvot to nullify our will, and as we get better at it, more disciplined, we can perform the rational mitzvot with ever-greater nullification of our will to His.
27. The hardest of the inter-personal mitzvot, from this week’s parshah, is arguably the mitzvah to love our fellow as ourselves. (Or alternatively, perhaps, a mitzvah a few verses later, to love the stranger as ourselves). This mitzvah, which sits at the centre of the holiness code of Leviticus, has been called by the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, the ‘great principle of the Torah’. Hillel, one of our greatest leaders, famously said about this mitzvah, ‘this is the whole of Torah, the rest is all commentary’.
28. Many have been confused by these comments. Given the many supra-rational mitzvot, including the many mitzvot which involve obligations toward G-d, how can loving your fellow (or the stranger) be the ‘great principle’ or the ‘whole of Torah’?
29. With the understanding set out above, we can now better understand what Hillel and Rabbi Akiva are saying. It is easier to nullify our will when we are given precise instructions. And it is also easier to nullify our will when the matter is beyond our understanding. However, when we are not given precise instructions, and when the matter is subject to our understanding, to perform the mitzvah according to the will of G-d, and not according to our own ego, this is the hardest of the mitzvot to perform. Those that can perform this inter-personal mitzvah according to G-d’s will, by truly nullifying their own, these are the holiest among us who bring G-d’s divine presence into the world.
30. This, then, is Judaism, per the best of my understanding at this time.
31. By way of addendum, given that zionism (which I use with a small ‘z’), namely the return of the Jewish people to become a free people in our own Land, is the cause of so much misunderstanding and controversy, the explanation provided above can better help clarify the relationship between Judaism and the Land of Israel.
32. Our quest to resettle Eretz Yisrael in contemporary times, and our ultimate aspiration to rebuild the Temple on Mount Moriah in the days of Moshiach, is not – or should not be – motivated by a striving for colonial dominance or national self-glorification, but precisely the reverse – for the opportunity to nullify our individual and collective will before the will of G-d through the myriad additional mitzvot that can only be performed in our Land and at our Temple.
33. Thus, according to the great sage, the Chafetz Chaim (Concise Book of Mitzvot), it is possible to perform only 271 of the 613 total mitzvot while Israel is in exile and the Temple remains destroyed. 26 additional mitzvot can be performed in the Land which we now have the privilege to perform as we resettle it. This gives a total of 297 and leaves 316 mitzvot – the majority – dependent on the rebuilding of the Temple, i.e. 316 extra ways of bringing G-d’s immanence into the world to fix it up.
34. The matter of the appropriate Torah-based approach concerning interaction with the Arab residents of this Land is an important matter, and worthy of separate examination. But whatever our rights and obligations towards the Arabs in the Land, whatever our track record in fulfilling them, and whatever their track record in their interactions with the Jewish people, based on the explanation above, it is important to assert that Judaism cannot be interpreted to be anything other than zionist – we need to be in our Land to perform those mitzvot.