March 9, 2010
Jews and God — a Troubled Relationship
We Jews need to face a sad, even tragic, fact. Things are not going very well in the relationship between God and most Jews.
All polling data agree that among Americans, Jews believe in God less than any other ethnicity or religion-based group. More Jews are agnostic, more Jews are atheist, more Jews are secular than any other group.
I would like to address two questions: Is it tragic? And why is it the case?
Yes, it is tragic. The human being needs God.
By “God,” I mean the Creator God of our Bible, a God who transcends nature, a God who knows each of us (though that does not mean He necessarily acts within our lives) and a God with a moral will who judges all humans.
Any other God is functionally equivalent to atheism. A God who made the world but who doesn’t know us is as irrelevant as no God. A God who does not transcend nature, but is within it, is pantheism. A God who created the world but does not judge His creations is an amoral, therefore evil, God.
Even science is increasingly discovering that the human brain is wired for God and religion. But one doesn’t need science to make the case for the necessity of belief in the Transcendent. If there is no God, life is pointless. Secularists who deny this are fooling themselves. I completely respect one who just finds belief in God too difficult. But such a person needs to be intellectually honest and acknowledge that if there is no God, we are all nothing more than molecular coincidences, of no more intrinsic significance than grains of sand on a beach. With no God, we are sand grains with self-consciousness, and that is all we are.
There is a second reason it is tragic that so many Jews do not believe in God. We are the people who introduced God to humanity. Whatever one’s belief level, it has to be acknowledged that it is sad that the people who brought God into the world are among the most alienated from Him.
How did this happen?
This is a considerably more complex question than the first. It is a lot easier to explain why Jews’ or anyone else’s alienation from God is tragic than it is to explain why Jews are disproportionately alienated from God.
But given the overwhelming importance of the subject — after all, if Jews believed in the God described above, we would have an enormously powerful impact on the world — it is worth giving it a try.
One reason has to be the amount of suffering Jews have endured because they were Jews. It is very hard, if not impossible, for many Jews to speak of God’s concern, let alone love, for Jews in light of the millennia of horrific suffering we have experienced.
As it happens, the hatred that the most evil individuals and regimes in every age have for the Jews confirms for this Jew that the Jews are indeed God’s Chosen People.
Willy-nilly, we are the world’s moral compass. This does not mean all Jews are good. Such a proposition would be ridiculous. It is only to say that when a group or ideology hates the Jews, you know the moral compass reads “evil.”
But I admit that there is a price paid here. While I am certain of Jewish chosenness, I do find it hard to say the many Jewish prayers describing God as shielding and saving Jews.
The fact is that Jewish suffering has hurt the God-Jews relationship.
A second factor contributing to Jewish secularism, agnosticism and atheism was the Orthodoxy of the shtetl and ghetto. As soon as Europe’s ghetto walls were broken, vast numbers of Jews left Jewish practice and either immediately or eventually left Jewish faith in God as well. The ghetto and shtetl left most Jews ill-prepared for either the wholesome or unwholesome temptations of Western Christian and Western secular life. Even today, Orthodoxy — in the Jewish state itself — does not do well in attracting secular Israeli Jews to Judaism. And, within Israel, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements have fared worse. We Jews have now had a Jewish state for more than 60 years, yet few secular Israeli Jews have embraced any of Judaism’s organized expressions. Indeed, it seems that many secular Israeli Jews begin taking
Judaism — and even Jewish identity — more seriously after they move to America. I have often thought that if all Israeli Jews could live in America for a year, and all
American Jews could live in Israel for a year, we would have far more committed Jews.
A third reason for Jewish secularism is widespread Jewish identification of religion with backwardness and oppression. Most secular Jews associate Orthodox Judaism with the former and Christianity with the latter. Neither is fully fair. Yes, Orthodoxy does have its backward elements — how else to describe Orthodox Jews who violently demonstrate against the building of a Jerusalem parking lot that will be used on Shabbat? And Christianity’s record vis à vis the Jews has been abysmal. But Orthodoxy is far broader than violent demonstrations against parking lots, and Christianity in America has been a unique blessing to Jews. It is entirely unfair to saddle America’s
Christians with the sins of Europe’s Christians.
A fourth reason is that Jews are disproportionately highly educated, and modern higher education is essentially a secular brainwash. Anyone who goes from kindergarten to graduate school is likely to have received as thorough a secular brainwash as one who has gone from a Christian kindergarten through a Christian seminary is likely to have received a religious brainwash.
Whatever the reason, the Jews’ alienation from God is a major tragedy for us as individuals, for us as Jews and for the society at large, which would benefit enormously if Jews, with our influence in academia, media and politics, would lead people to God rather than from God.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.