Years ago, a Muslim woman called my radio show and asked me why I was not a Muslim. She asked this question with complete sincerity, and I answered her with equal sincerity.
The name of her religion, I told her, is Islam, which in Arabic means submission (to God). The name of the Jewish people is Israel, which in Hebrew means struggle with God. I’d rather struggle with God, I said, than only submit to God.
She thanked me and hung up. The answer apparently satisfied her.
Arguing/struggling with God is not only Jewishly permitted, it is central to the Torah and later Judaism. In this regard, as in others, the Torah is unique. In no other foundational religious text of which I am aware is arguing with God a religious expectation. The very first Jew, Abraham, argues with God, as does the greatest Jew, Moses. (It is worth noting that though Muslims consider Abraham their father as well, arguing with God has no place in the Quran or in normative Islam.)
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this Jewish concept. For one thing, it enabled Jews to believe in the importance of reason — God Himself could be challenged on the basis of reason and morality; one does not have to suspend reason to be a believing Jew. Indeed, it assured Jews that belief in God was itself the apotheosis of reason. For another, it had profound psychological benefits to Jews. We do not have to squelch our questioning of, or even our anger at, God. One can be both religious and real. I will never forget making a shivah call on a Chabad rabbi who had suddenly lost his young wife. He looked at me and said in Yiddish, “Mann tracht und Gott lacht” — “man plans and God laughs.” It is difficult to imagine an equally religious priest, minister or imam making such a statement.
With regard to God, Judaism never abandoned reason, struggle and argument.
The result is that religious Jews have no difficulty in arguing with God — God was famously put on trial by Orthodox rabbis in Auschwitz — and even in getting angry with Him.
The lack of struggle with God lies at the other end of Jewry — among secular Jews. While religious Jews understand the need for questioning God, many secular and atheistic Jews have assumed that struggling with God is no longer necessary. They have simply abandoned God — and any attempts to believe in God.
But to be true to “Israel,” one must struggle with God. Abandoning God or, even worse, arguing that God is not morally or Jewishly necessary is not being true to “Israel.”
Of course, a Jew who does not believe in God is still a Jew. But if we are to take the name of the Jewish people seriously, atheism is not a Jewish option. The non-believer is as obligated to struggle with God as is the believer.
A few years ago, I was invited to the American Atheists annual convention in Minneapolis to debate its leader. At one point I noted that virtually every believer in God I know has at times questioned his or her faith — as, for example, when they see a baby born with terrible disabilities. I asked the audience members to raise their hands if they ever doubt their atheism — as when they see a healthy baby emerge from the union of sperm and egg, or when they read about the complexity of a single cell. No hands went up.
It would appear that atheists do not struggle with atheism nearly as much as most believers struggle with belief. But the atheistic, agnostic and secular Jew who takes Judaism seriously is obligated to struggle to believe in God, just as the believing Jew is expected to struggle with God.
Atheist Jews are full members of the Jewish people. But there is no room for atheism in Judaism. An atheist rabbi — particularly one who publicly declares his atheism — should therefore be a contradiction in terms. A Jewish atheist can be a wonderful head of a Jewish federation, a fine professor of Judaic studies or even a great prime minister of Israel. And surely an atheist can be a wonderful person. But if “Israel” matters, if God and the “struggle with God” are defining characteristics of Judaism, an atheist Jew should not become a rabbi. Judaism without God is not Judaism. Nor can Judaism long survive without belief in God. Indeed, there is no greater task of a rabbi than to help Jews come to God.
Atheist and agnostic Jews who are serious about Judaism are duty bound to talk to intellectual believers, and to read the many works written by scientists and other intellectuals who affirm God. “Israel” demands that they do so. And the people of Israel needs them to do so.