Monotheists? Not more moral.

Intro: Monotheism v. polytheism

Rather recently, I heard a young rabbi, a friend of mine, discussing monotheism with one of his Talmud students. She had been troubled by the line of religious reasoning that he’d espoused to the class; and she challenged him on the supposedly unique righteousness of monotheism.

His responses to her, I believe, were fairly reasonable.


Monotheism & me

The only concept of a supernatural being that I can wrap my mind or heart around is a single, omnipotent, and unknowable one. The existence of a creator of the universe is more plausible to me than a ‘Big Bang’, but I also put a very heavy emphasis on this being’s unknowable nature, far, far, far beyond possible human comprehension and our senses.

To be fair, I was born and raised a Jew, and my monotheistic beliefs (which are not entirely mainstream within the traditional Jewish community because I don’t much believe in a God who cares about anyone or involves himself in the lives of human beings) are clearly a product of my heritage and upbringing. If I had been born and raised elsewhere (India, for example), I very likely would have come to believe in polytheism. Still, this is where I stand.

Incidentally, this happens to be one challenge I have come to for those of any Abrahamic faith – why would God only be motivated to share Ultimate Truth (and therefore: Salvation) with a limited number of human beings in only one corner of the world? No answer to this question that I have come across has satisfied me.


Two arguments for pure monotheism

The young rabbi made several arguments for monotheism over polytheism, two of which especially resonate with me:

  1. Monotheism encourages personal responsibility because there is only one Divine address to which one can address one’s grievances and desires. If prayer and penitence do not bring the desired results, one can then only find solutions on one’s own;
  2. Pure monotheism rejects all images of God, whereas the majority of gods of polytheistic faiths have bodies that resemble those of human beings. In this way, polytheistic faiths encourage, albeit perhaps unintentionally, the worship of humankind itself.

These arguments, as I noted, work for me… but only intellectually and theoretically.

Why?


Monotheism in the real world

All of this theory utterly falls apart when I consider the behavior of human beings around the globe throughout all of history. Are polytheists more or less moral because of their beliefs? Are monotheists? Are atheists? Simply – no. No, not at all.

In fact, that’s not even to mention those people of all faiths who act horribly and evilly towards others. Anyone of any faith can perpetrate evil.

These have been my observations over the course of my four decades, and I consider myself a fairly well informed and well read person. Human beings have been arguing over and killing one another over faith for thousands of years, but ~ ultimately? What’s the point? What difference does it make in the real world? Who can truly claim that their chosen faith produces kinder, better people or a kinder, better world?

Thus, while I view existence through a strictly monotheistic lens, and while I can make some logical and reasonable arguments to support my faith perspective, none of that is to say that my beliefs are better than anybody else’s – neither I nor any other person who shares my religious views is inherently better than any other human being; and I wouldn’t necessarily assume that anyone who shares my monotheistic views is moral, kind, or just. Some are; others, unfortunately, are not.


And… then there’s professional monotheism

Disappointingly, I have found that I must always take everything that any religious leader espouses with several grains of salt.

This particular young rabbi, before he joined the clergy, was simply my friend; and he used to speak with others about his own deep doubts in his faith convictions (which he had been raised into, for his extended family is all Orthodox, and his father too is an Orthodox rabbi). He used to struggle with whether Judaism was indeed the Truest faith. He used to be forthcoming about doubting his connection to God and wonder about whether God was listening to him at all. This struggle of his over his religious views was profoundly compelling to me – it was relatable – it drew me… and I felt that it fed our friendship.

Then my friend became a rabbi and decided, it seems, that it was incumbent upon him to promote traditional Jewish monotheism as the most moral faith, regardless of the evidence…

And, ever since then, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to speak with him about matters of faith at all 😞

Jewish and normal

I had an unexpected flash of insight the other day regarding the following themes:

  • My Jewish identity
  • Living in Israel
  • Blogging on WordPress

My Jewish identity

While I only encountered Orthodox Judaism and gradually began to adopt a religious lifestyle in college, I have always strongly identified as a Jew. If I were to sort the many facets of my identity out into a hierarchy, I would put the label ‘human’ at the very top. My second tier would include: ‘brother’, ‘father’, ‘heteronormative male’. ‘husband’, ‘Jew’, and ‘son’ in no particular order.

For several reasons, the many strictures of religious Jewish life have always appealed to me. In part, I feel that I am simply being outwardly true to my core identity by presenting myself as a Jew publicly in the most apparent way possible.

Mind you, I began college more than twenty years ago; and my religious journey has had many ups and downs in the many years since. There were periods when I reverted to a secular lifestyle, and there were periods when I managed to convince myself that the God of the Torah existed and strived to follow His laws to my utmost accordingly.

I have been up, down, and all around on the spectrum of religious Judaism. However, throughout those years during which I turned back towards secularism, I always missed the outward trappings of traditional observance. The personal inconveniences of keeping strictly kosher, keeping Shabbat traditionally, praying thrice daily, etc., never bothered me ~ it was, rather, always a question of the extent to which any of these practices actually mattered.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that while I never minded the demands that traditional Judaism made upon my life, I did find myself wishing that my religious lifestyle wouldn’t create such barriers between me and all other human beings on earth who were not attempting to live a traditional Torah lifestyle.


Living in Israel

Not religiously comfortable for all Jews

From a religious perspective, Israel is not necessarily a comfortable place for all Jews to live.

For political and historical reasons, the Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox, rather than heterodox (Conservative, Reform, etc.), and its religious monopoly over Jewish life operates with the full weight of the government behind it. For example, Jewish weddings performed in Israel outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate are granted no legal status (and civil marriage does not exist). Also, the Chief Rabbinate’s state-empowered religious monopoly grants it the exclusive right to certify Israel’s food establishments as “kosher”, unlike everywhere else in the world.

Also, questions of Jewish status are decided by the Chief Rabbinate for religious purposes. This decides whether or not citizens of Israel can get married in Israel at all, where they can be buried when they die, etc., etc. Therefore, Israeli citizens whose mothers are not Jewish, as required by religious law, are considered “not Jewish” by the Chief Rabbinate, and they cannot legally marry Jews in Israel without first undergoing religious conversions under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate (even if they are secular).

Religiously comfortable for me

While I 100% oppose these infringements and all others on freedom of religion in Israel, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious Jewish life does not much inconvenience me on a personal level because I happen to live an Orthodox lifestyle (my wedding, for example, was conducted through the Chief Rabbinate).

Also, while I have explored and flirted with non-Orthodox religious communities, they do not feel like home to me personally. Therefore, as the vast majority of Israeli synagogues are Orthodox, my religious preferences are not marginalized in most public prayer spaces. Further, even when my commitment to my religious practices vacillates, it is always fluctuating on the spectrum between Jewish secularism and Orthodoxy, both of which are mainstream in Israeli society.

All of this is to say that I feel very at home in Israel from a religious perspective. Kosher food is – and kosher food establishments are – abundant, synagogues are available everywhere, the national holidays are my own religious holidays, etc., etc.

Living here in Israel (especially in Jerusalem) dramatically lowers the religious barriers between me and all the other people around me.


Blogging on WordPress

I have been increasingly enjoying the sense of community that I have discovered here on WordPress.

Bloggers from around the world share with – and are supportive of – one another, and for the first time since moving to Israel I have been feeling significantly less divorced from global society, which is predominantly not Jewish.

The unexpected insight that I had last week is that our virtual WordPress community grants me something not entirely dissimilar from that which living in Israel grants me: a sense of normalcy.

Of course, I am aware this comparison has many flaws. For one, every blogger chooses whom to interact with on their blog and on other people’s blogs. My virtual community is entirely self-selected and filtered according my preferences… and, of course, writing and reading blog posts is a far cry from in-person interactions… but… well…

Here on WordPress, I feel simply human.

Holiday thoughts: Jewish v. Not

Chanukah ended, and though I haven’t written a word about it yet, I have been mulling something over quite a bit.

Traditionally, there’s a song that Jews sing after reciting the blessings and lighting the candles of the chanukiah 🕎. This song is called Ma’oz Tzur (“Strong Rock”), and there exists a popular, non-literal English translation called “Rock of Ages”.

Here is the full song in Hebrew. There are six stanzas:

This is a tune that I find myself humming throughout the year, even when it isn’t Chanukah; I just love it. Unfortunately, I don’t know the words to all of the stanzas by heart so I can only sing it with a prayer book in front of me.

While I speak Hebrew passably, it is not my mother tongue, and memorizing multi-stanza songs in Hebrew takes me some effort. On the other hand, as I observe my daughter, born and bred in the Jewish homeland, I delight in her Hebrew fluency. Also, traditional Jewish songs like Ma’oz Tzur have infused every moment of her comprehensively Jewish life in Israel. She hears Jewish songs at home; at school; at the mall; in taxis; pretty much everywhere.


Growing up in the USA, Christmas carols on the radio and Halloween songs at school were the norm for me, and while I never thought twice about my diaspora reality, these were not my family’s holidays.

I still remember the messaging that was directed at me in the eighties and the nineties when I was a child, attending Hebrew school (an afterschool program) at my synagogue. We were discouraged from trick-or-treating on Halloween; from marrying non-Jews; from falling for the wiles of Christian missionaries; etc.

This messaging was born of the Jewish establishment’s fear of Jewish assimilation, which was heightening, along with the rate of intermarriage (i.e., Jews marrying gentiles) in the USA. (As the years rolled on, the Jewish establishment gradually lost this messaging battle and had to find new strategies. Assimilation proved itself unstoppable.)

By the way, there is nothing new under the sun. You see, the Jewish community’s concern over the threat of assimilation is millennia old. The Chanukah story, which took place in the 2nd century BCE, was no less than one of a vicious and bloody Jewish civil war over Hellenization. In other words, Jewish traditionalists were pitted against Jewish Hellenizers who wanted to adopt many elements of Greek life and culture. You can guess who won.

It’s important, I think, to put this historic Jewish concern over assimilation into perspective. As of 2015, there are some 2.168 billion Christians, 1.599 billion Muslims, and less than 15 million Jews worldwide.


I honestly don’t quite know why I care so passionately about my people; but I do, and I have cared for as long as I can remember.

As a modern, I support and can respect people’s personal choices, as long as they do not cause harm to others; and, believe me, I well understand the appeal of assimilation for all minority groups. In all honesty, I was once very judgmental of more assimilated Jews, but my judgmentalism has profoundly dissipated over the last decade or so, as I’ve increasingly begun to appreciate and seek to understand the contexts of people’s decisions. You do you; I do me. Let’s aim to understand one another.

On the other hand, as a Jew, I am deeply invested in my people’s continued existence, for the Jewish people is my extended family. So what can I do to maximize the odds that my child(ren) will not assimilate?

One of the best answers I have found to this question is quite simple: I can raise my child(ren) in the Jewish state of Israel, in a society which is mostly Jewish, which celebrates Jewish holidays, which speaks a Jewish language…

I am certain, thankful and proud that my daughter will not need to read the stanzas from a prayer book when she sings Ma’oz Tzur with her children during Chanukah.

The “synagogue of Satan”

A story of a much younger me.

Memories of the exuberance of my first year of college stay with me. I remember how exciting it was to sit down with a new friend at a café right across the street from our dormitory. How adult we thought ourselves, as we ordered our chai lattes (that was the first time I’d ever had one). Everything was so new and fun.

My new friend Adam was a devout Christian, having grown up in the ‘Church of Christ’ in Dayton, Ohio. He was truly a pure soul with deep faith. We became fast friends, and as I was often attending social events organized by our local chapter of the Jewish fraternity, he would cheerfully come along with me and hang out with the Jewish fraternity brothers, totally at ease in our company. Antisemitism was not in his heart; in fact, he hadn’t had any Jewish friends until coming to college.

The brothers extended a bid to him, as they did to all the other freshmen who were interested in joining. While the international ΑΕΠ fraternity is culturally Jewish, many chapters have non-Jewish members, and ours was no exception.

Adam, after some consideration, accepted the invitation and became one of my pledge brothers (probationary members). In fact, he was one of two Christian pledges that year (the other, Kenneth, was a Catholic). Sadly, when the pledge period ended some five weeks later, Adam dropped out due to religious considerations after he’d consulted with his family.


The incident

One incident involving Adam remains unforgettable to me.

Before Thanksgiving break, Adam and I were hanging out in my dorm room when he started to cry. I was shocked. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “You’re such a good person,” he responded between sobs, “I don’t understand how you can be going to hell.”

I remember talking to him, reeling from the realization that my friend actually believed I would be sentenced to eternal damnation for being Jewish. I told him that I was sorry he felt this way, but there simply wasn’t anything I could do about it. I was a Jew, and my belief system was different than his. Judaism doesn’t put much emphasis on an afterlife, and the concept of hell is not part of our faith.

Following that exchange, I was deeply shaken.

I went over to speak with Kenneth, my other Christian pledge brother, who told me that while he too believed that Christ is the Messiah, it was his belief that those who do not currently accept Jesus as God cannot be faulted. His view was that once Jesus returned, all of humanity would be expected to accept him, and only those who continued to reject him would be damned to hell. Ken’s understanding made more sense to me.

Interestingly, after we’d returned from Thanksgiving break, Adam had also found peace after consulting with his family’s pastor, and he’d somehow decided that I wouldn’t necessarily be going to hell… Our friendly relationship continued, but neither of us ever broached the subject again, and we didn’t spend as much time together as we once had. After that first semester, Adam left our university, and I never saw him again; I think he transferred to a Christian seminary.

That was more than two decades ago.


My take

I have never had a problem being friends with anybody who doesn’t have a problem with me.

Here in Israel, I very happily wish all of the Muslims I interact with a ‘blessed Friday (جمعة مباركة) and ‘generous Ramadan (رمضان كريم). I have fewer interactions with Christians in person nowadays, but I’m happy to wish any that I meet a ‘Merry Christmas’, and I once attended Christmas services at a Lutheran church in the Old City of Jerusalem with friends of mine.

I’m always curious to understand other people’s faiths and cultures and am eager to engage them in conversations about our respective worldviews.

Notre Dame de Paris. 3rd statue (from left to right) on the West Entrance, source: Wikipedia

Since college, I’ve learned quite a great deal about Judaism, and while I am no scholar, I have a solid understanding of the history between Jews and Christians throughout the centuries. I am aware, for example, of the beliefs represented by the crowned Ecclesia and the blind, defeated Synagoga statues, which feature prominently before some of the medieval churches that I’ve visited. In truth, I find such beliefs more a curiosity than offensive. After all, I walk the earth as a proud Jew, and I don’t feel defeated in the slightest (quite the opposite).

In short, a person’s humanity is of much more interest to me than their religious affiliation. In my four decades, I have met wonderful people of many different faiths (and many of no faith at all); and I have also encountered some horrible people who earnestly couch their xenophobia and horrid behaviors in religious language.


The Blogosphere

I created this blog for myself, my friends, and my family, giving no thought to other people’s blogs, intending only to pour out my thoughts and centralize the 51 posts that comprise my kaddish journey following Papa’s death.

Inevitably, I suppose, other bloggers began interacting with me, and I was drawn to read their pieces of prose and poetry. Many of our subsequent online interactions have been very rewarding and have fueled some interesting thoughts.

Among these new online friends, there are some devout Christians who write about their beliefs, and I’ve found none so sincere as Steven Colborne from London. I find his deep faith and daily drive to unravel the big questions of the universe very moving, even though he and I are of different faiths (and mine, unlike his, is uncertain).

Just two days ago, on Friday, Steven published a post titled ‘The Synagogue of Satan’, and before I’d even noticed it, he sent me the following e-mail (shared with his permission):

Hey David,
Just wanted to say hi and send my love.
I know the blog post I published this morning could be thought provoking for you. It is posted with the utmost respect for you and for the Jewish people. My intention is always to share the whole of Scripture to everyone who’s interested, because this is what I understand I am called to do by Jesus, who I understand to be God’s Messiah, and indeed God himself.
Have a wonderful day, friend.
Peace be with you! Shalom.
Steven

I was busy shopping for Shabbat on Friday (during the Winter months, Shabbat starts earlier so Fridays are quite busy with preparations), and I didn’t have much time to engage with Steven, but I shot off a quick response, letting him know that I was not offended in the slightest. Now, some hours after Shabbat has gone out here in Jerusalem, and I’ve had more opportunity to sit down and reflect upon Steven’s words, I want to offer him a simple, Jewish response:

Dear Steven,
I consider you a true mensch.
Shavua Tov,
David