Jews as Closet Agnostics

Borowitz, Eugene B.

Jews as Closet Agnostics Eugene B. Borowitz Until recently one could take it for granted that most Jews were closet agnostics, although their public behavior might have confused the observer. They...

...Only now it appears that not having some sort of belief leads on to lacking strong conviction about why one should do this or not do that...
...Rather, one withdrew to the irreproachable perspective of awaiting more data...
...Since believing nothing has come to entail no strong sense of values, we now realize, often to our own surprise, that we believe something...
...One no longer sullied oneself attacking traditional belief...
...And having been shaken, we reexamine the foundations of our lives...
...Affirming our values, we come in touch with a place within us where, with all our doubts, we brush up against what our forebears called God...
...Agnosticism provided a cleaner resolution of the Oedipal project...
...No wonder that Bon-hoeffer's good news, which reached American Protestant ears in the mid-'60's, said little new to Jews...
...For the Zionists, only the nation commanded full Jewish allegiance...
...To many a Jew these were the modern equivalents of Sinai...
...The institutions we once counted on to produce the life styles we cherish will at best carry the sense of goodness we bring to them, but are more likely to distort if not pervert it...
...Nihilism seems to have as much to commend it as ethics, though cultural lag requires most of us to practice the former with some prudence...
...Still, the social reality about us and the persistence of a Jewish sense of the universe within us are having more than an occasional effect...
...In the current collapse of secular culture, it means having only one's arbitrary choice as the ground for staking one's life on one's values...
...others counted on the ennobling influences of literature and the arts, the democratic process, or simply the innate goodness of people...
...The State of Israel was in such a continuing series of emergencies that the need to act on its behalf made diverting energies to metaphysics seem sinful...
...True, only a minority among us may be sensitive to the crisis in values around us, and only a portion of that number are willing to face the shift of ground taking place in their depths...
...Neither the university nor the theater nor the gallery nor the mental health clinic nor the communicating family nor the latest techniques in self-realization, from yoga to bio-feedback, explain why we should care passionately about being a certain kind of person, devote ourselves to building given patterns of family relationships and discipline ourselves to try to create better communities and a more humane society...
...One therefore felt quite justified in setting aside the question of God, ostensibly until proof was forthcoming, in fact, however, setting such standards of skepticism that the theistic burden of proof was impossible to bear...
...Against the believers and the atheists, one was a true intellectual, open-minded and searching, not closed and dogmatic...
...The Jewish socialists and intellectuals of yesteryear and their Zionist counterparts took it as axiomatic that there was no God...
...We always took it for granted that our kind of agnostic would be learned, cultured, sensitive, liberal and dependable in a social or personal crisis in short, not a bad sort of Jew to have around...
...We didn't need to be told that the world "had come of age," and that we must therefore learn to live "as if there were no God...
...The American-oriented Jewish ethnics emphasized culture and peoplehood, and, if one insisted on facing up to his religious sub-structure, one could easily sublimate the word God, a la Mordecai Kaplan, to the people's will, individual and collective, to ALEINU, the title of this column, is taken from the prayer which begins with that word, and means "it is incumbent' upon us...
...Science dictated atheism...
...So confidently and more or less happily we lived through the secularizing, society-bettering, self-improving, boom decades of the post-World War II era...
...In these and other worthy Jewish ways we found patterns of Jewish living that allowed us to avoid believing in God...
...It can most reasonably be described as our response to that in the universe which transcends humanity and confronts it with a challenge or command...
...In fact we have the quiet certainty that our devotion to living with quality goes far beyond our conditioning, our class's interests or our society's folkways...
...Thus, insofar as one acknowledged God, one called God to account...
...This column is for wrestling with God and his commandments...
...We could consider living without God, but not without our root sense that high human endeavor is a matter of cosmic significance...
...But insiders knew that all these acts were done with a mental reservation...
...That had already become the modern, suburban American Jewish style...
...R. D. Laing makes schizophrenia a reasonable way of responding to our world, and Sylvia Plath has become our symbol of facing life through suicide...
...While we once could assume that most Jews were agnostics, I do not think it is any longer true today...
...In the face of nihilism we have been radicalized away from agnosticism...
...We flattered ourselves that we were always open to new evidence...
...One first bracketed God out of one's consciousness or, more positively, performed them "as if there were a God...
...Considering the low level of contemporary Jewish practice, such participation almost passed for piety...
...Its author this month is Eugene B. Borowitz, founder and editor of SH'MA, who teaches Jewish thought at Hebrew Union College, New York...
...but privately we knew, having studied anthropology and read Dostoevski, that no one was likely to be able to demonstrate to us that there was a God...
...We had not imagined that agnosticism might lead to the death of values...
...Marx had shown that religion was a device used by the upper classes to screen their exploitation, and Freud had exposed the infantile fantasies that gave it credence...
...Character becomes a whim and integrity is likely to be more an accident than moral accomplishment and that is too much for most of us...
...Surely reasonable people could not be expected to act upon what they were not sure of...
...Confronting the emptiness around us, we discover that we do not come to life in utter openness...
...The more "religious" types dissolved God into the old Jewish emphasis on behavior, "tradition" if they went to shul, "ethics" if they went to temple...
...Yet atheism seemed an overstatement to most Jews...
...This secret suspension of belief was not difficult to live with, as there were several ways of thinking about being a Jew that nicely accommodated it...
...I think it remains true even today that in a society as permeated by the Bible as ours was, biblical values would seem to be self-substantiating for some time after the faith that gave rise to them had atrophied...
...In one's everyday life one sawi decent people who professed no religious faith the Abraham Lincoln model while one always knew or suspected that there were scoundrels observant of the Torah (to borrow Nahmanides's phrase...
...The realism engendered by the past seven or eight years has destroyed our naive confidence in the naturalness of values...
...Had we been able to proclaim ourselves atheists, as many Jews did some generations back, we would not have needed these strategies...
...One could even think of talking directly to God by setting up Abraham at Sodom, Job, and Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev as models of a proper relationship with God...
...But our self-satisfaction with our agnosticism, it turned out, was based on an assumption: one didn't need religious faith to ground a strong sense of ethics or a commitment to high human standards...
...Some based their sense of values on science, more on the social sciences, particularly psychology...
...This is not an eccentric experience in contemporary Jewry...
...live fruitfully...
...It knew too much and its assertive negativity showed that its adherents were still hung up on God...
...Reasonably intelligent people today accept all sorts of other possible life goals...
...They joined synagogues, attended services now and then, and said an occasional b'rachah with some emotion...
...Wherever I have traveled in the past few years I have sensed a widespread, growing possibility that we may be beginning to recognize we are, in some small yet significant way, believers...
...What we once thought were human necessities now seem to the contemporary temper only alternate life styles...
...And so I have come to believe that another of the cherished patterns of post-World War II American Jewish life has now reached obsolescence...
...The guilt associated with this stance was easily offset by the sense of righteousness connected with the label of agnostic...

Vol. 1 • March 1976 • No. 8


 
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