Finding G-d

“Where is G-d?” After stumping his Chassidim, the Kotzker is reported to have answered his own question: “Wherever you will let Him in.” This profound and beautiful approach only works for those who are thoroughly convinced of His existence, and mildly familiar with the methods for inviting Him in. What are others to do? Some thoughts on recent attempts, and a consideration of where we differ.
What could be better, I thought, than a take-down by Jack Miles of the whole lot of New Atheists – and in the pages of The Atlantic, no less. Jack Miles recently finished editing The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and might therefore know a thing or two about belief. His Atlantic essay, “Why G-d Will Not Die,” is taken from his postscript to that compendium, and is therefore his last word on the state of religion after pondering the rich assortment of faith-systems. Alas, his argument could not knock a one-legged agnostic stork off his perch. It does contain, however, some delectable tidbits and one-liners.

The story begins with a younger author delighting in the words of arch-atheist (and Israel-hater) Bertrand Russell:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

Especially significant to Miles were Russell’s final words in that paragraph:

Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

In these words, the young Miles found release and liberty:

Unyielding despair! Here was the habitation that my soul had been seeking! Throw that master switch and feel the relief spread through your mind and body, feel the burden of hope lift from your shoulders, feel the freedom of no longer needing to make anything happen for anybody, including yourself.

Years later, he had cause to reevaluate Russell’s prescription for happiness, and found them not as smug and complacent as they needed to be:

I noticed that Russell had claimed only that the science on which he had laid his firm foundation of despair was “nearly certain.” I noticed that I had no independent knowledge of the scientific basis for his existential claims. And I reflected that, in any case, science itself must surely have moved on in important ways since his day.
Not only did faith rest on the unknowable, so did denial.

Still, the implications of his agnosticism about agnosticism took time to take hold. Besides Russell, others had contributed to his rejection of ultimate meaning. Camus considered the mythical Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to laboriously push a large rock to the top of a mountain only to see it tumble each time he approached his goal to the bottom. Camus wrote, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Nobel laureate molecular biologist Jacques Monod had also spoken of banishing the illusion of meaning and purpose:

Man must finally awaken from his age-old dream to discover his total solitude, his radical strangeness. He knows now that, like a nomad, he stands at the margin of the universe where he must live. A universe deaf to his music, as indifferent to his hopes as to his sufferings—or to his crimes.

Between Russell, Camus and Monod, the young Miles found what he later realized he had really been looking for:

What I had wanted was simply closure, a way to stop thinking about questions whose answers were beyond my reach.

Who could have predicted that it would be religion that would disturb his idyll? Drifting occasionally into a church for no apparent reason, he was taken aback by the claim of a hymn, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent word!” Something was amiss here:

I was accustomed to the idea that religion was a refuge for those not brave enough to face the uncertainties of the real world. But now I asked: Had not Russell, too, sought a refuge, a “soul’s habitation,” and had he not finally claimed rather more firmness for it than was really there?

Even granting that faith was “ridiculous” (the word I heard so often from my friends), was it any less ridiculous to pretend that one was Sisyphus and then declare that by sheer force of imagination one was happy about it? Absurd indeed! Why should this form of nonsense be regarded as any less ridiculous than religion, once the spell of eloquence was broken? But then, too, why belittle Camus for coping with his perceived dilemma as well as he could?
There it was, like Koheles discovering that a common fate befell all men, wise and ignorant. To Miles, that fate was finding “some way of coping with our own invincible ignorance.”

While scientists and other illuminati liked to believe they were that close to knowing everything, he continues, the reality was very different. Every new scientific discovery brings breathtaking insight – and a greater number of new questions than we had faced before. “If religion rests on human ignorance, it rests on a firm foundation indeed,” because nothing else will better conquer that ignorance. “You may die never having learned the one fact that would have changed everything for you.”

We have arrived at the justification for religion, tenuous as its claims are: “Religion is among the ways that humankind has coped with the permanence and imponderability of human ignorance.” If it works for you, it is as good a coping mechanism as any. Since it apparently does work for many millions of people, there is little reason to think that G-d will become unemployed in the near future.

Properly, then, religion is not about what we know, but a balm for what we don’t. In fact, we ought to differentiate between different kinds of religious quest:

Religion seems to me to assume one aspect when considered as a special claim to knowledge and quite another aspect when considered as a ritualized confession of ignorance.

Confession of ignorance is good and a mark of humility; claims of special knowledge are “smug, loud, insufferable.” Reasonable people prefer the former, which offers a new formula for interfaith understanding: Since we all understand that our religions are only becalming our nervousness about not knowing, we can all get along. Thus his bottom line:
Science keeps revealing how much we don’t, perhaps can’t, know. Yet humans seek closure, which should make religious pluralists of us all.

So there we have it. The discovery of G-d is hardly accompanied by the sound of the beating of wings of a thousand heavenly seraphim, gathering in adoration of Man’s insight. Miles’ formulation is minimalist and defeatist. Since all of us are out shopping for the same bottle of psychological Benadryl to ease the irritation of our ignorance, we can glumly hold hands with everyone else engaged in willful self-delusion. Pascal’s wager has returned, in post-modern garb: Living with closure is better than not having closure, and doesn’t cost you anything. So head down to your local religion supermarket and pick any product off the shelf. They are pretty much all the same.

Strangely missing in this piece is what should be Jack Miles’ signature accomplishment. In 1996, he wrote G-d: A Biography. In this essay, we see no indication that the author ever got to meet his Subject. There is no talk of connection, or relationship. David Bentley Hart tries to take us to a very different place in his introduction to The Experience of G-d, which comes recommended to the rafters by Ryan Anderson (whom readers may remember was one of the most successful presenters at last summer’s Tikvah Yeshivah Program). Explaining what his book will set out to do, he writes:

This book … takes the structure of personal experience … not only as an authentic way of approaching the mystery of the divine but as powerful evidence of the reality of God….I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we can speak them; indeed we know them … even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence. But …we tend to put them out of mind as we grow older and make ourselves oblivious to them and try to silence the voice of knowledge that speaks within our own experiences of the world. Wisdom is the recovery of innocence at the far end of experience; it is the ability to see again what most of us have forgotten how to see…

He expresses wariness at what this admission might do. Who will pay any attention to anything as subjective as personal experience, especially notions from our younger days of innocence? Nonetheless, he insists on validating ideas he considers to be near-universal. It brings to mind the prescription often advanced by the Slonimer Rebbe in Nesivos Shalom, citing an earlier rebbe – and an appeal to a past when things were clearer. When one finds his belief wavering, “he should have emunah that he has emunah.”

Many will resist the idea that our perception of the ultimate reality grows murkier as we grow older and hopefully wiser, and that we need to hearken to an earlier, less mature but more insightful voice. Is there anything more…appealing out there for us? Hey – Rambam (unlike Ramban) considers emunah a mitzvah, not a jumping off point for observance. If G-d expects it of us, He should be providing some ways to acquire it and to take it to the next level, should He not?

Telling G-d what He must do is fraught, to say the least. So is creating a roadmap for belief. Doubtless, there is not a single path (or two, or three) towards deeper connection with HKBH. I don’t wish to imply that I have discovered the single best way to build emunah. I do wish to showcase one of the methods in our mesorah that appears particularly attractive when stood up next to some other attempts, such as the ones above. We often can better appreciate what we have when we examine the alternatives.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Bereishis 28:18) contrasts matzevah, which featured prominently in the avodah of the avos, with mizbeach, which became the rule after Sinai. The former, he explains, is a single stone, arising in Nature. At one point in history, G-d was known – and therefore served – through how He made Himself manifest through His supervising Creation. That changed, he says, with the giving of the Torah. From that point on, Hashem orders us as Jews to find Him in what we do, not in what He does. A mizbeach is assembled by human hands. Our mission is now to serve Him not merely in acknowledging what He has given us, but in performing according to His directives. Although I cannot prove this, it seems to me that Rav Hirsch means two things. We serve Hashem best by doing. We also find Him best in the same way. Within the law, within living the life of Torah Jews, we connect with Him, we experience Him not in a random, chaotic manner, but according to a coordinated, systematic plan that He Himself mapped out, and then engineered our souls to be responsive to it.

The Shelah ha-Kadosh speaks of a variation on this theme. In several places, he makes passing reference to an ohr of emunah that Hashem placed within mitzvos. In other words, one of the gifts of the mitzvah system, besides other goals of inner change, is that He validates Himself to us experientially through them. Experiencing Him is indeed important, and experience is not haphazard, depending on chance encounters between Man and G-d. He reveals Himself to us through interactions that are normative and binding – and that containing within them packets of Elokus that we can relate to subliminally and bond with. It is these small, repeated interactions with Elokus that firm up our emunah, that connect us with their Source.

Thus we find, at least as Jews, another way to find Him, not through the capitulation of despair, and not through embracing notions somehow engineered into our earliest understanding. We can come to understand more as we grow older and wiser, not just recover earlier notions. Moreover, we have a shot at deepening our understanding every day of our lives, so long as we live.

I would think that this would make the journey more inviting and satisfying.

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10 Responses

  1. Israel Oz says:

    Thoughtful article and analysis… as usual.

    However, I think you’re misreading Miles. He’s not “taking down” the “new atheists”, he remains one himself. He’s trying to create common ground for dialogue and respect between the religious and the non-religious; at level of the “masses”. Like the Rambam he’s assuming that the masses are pretty naive and can subsist on simplistic “closure”. He feels that in both groups people seek this closure based on “ignorance and fear”. For a while the simple-minded non-religious thought they had “closure” because science had found answers to so many of the questions that created the “gaps” on which religion seemed to thrive. As science is advancing and creating so many new questions Miles sees potential for synergy for the newly “lost” non-religious who are wallowing in ignorance and fear with the religious who have learned to adapt to that wallowing through their beliefs. This is all a back-handed compliment, at best.

    True scientists and more sophisticated non-religious people, however, never had an issue. They thrive on new questions and easily tolerate non-closure. There were sophisticated religious thinkers who could tolerate lack of closure. They were willing to reinterpret their understanding of scripture based on new information. But that seems to be a thing of the past. Just like the non-religious folks Miles is talking about, modern religion is also hunkering down in the face of so much new information. They are trying to recreate an ignorance of an era gone by.

    The Rambam my have legislated Emunah for the masses, but not for the Moreh Nevuchim elite. The masses, religious and not, need and should have their closure. And maybe they can find common ground to discuss it. I think the “wisdom” of old age you are referring to is really mental exhaustion. At some point many people just want to give up the intellectual “fight” and fall into the warm embrace of closure religion provided. (And the approach of the ante of the Pascal’s wager doesn’t hurt either.)

    [YA – Not sure whether we should call him an atheist. Certainly not a classic atheist. He believes in a Something that is important and real enough to him that he prays and seeks guidance. This passage from an interview may shed light on his personal belief:

    What about your personal belief in God? What do you think God is like?
    I believe that ultimate reality escapes our intelligence. Professing this ignorance is more basic for me than professing any special knowledge that could be called faith. The central virtue for me is the virtue of hope. I hope that this ultimate reality affirms and supports my own efforts toward truth, goodness, and beauty, or perhaps better that those efforts of mine coincide somehow with that reality. I think of it as a personal enough reality that I can address it, ask it for help, abide with it. I do not think of it as identical with the God about whom I write in my book or whom I find in the Bible, but I respect the Bible as its authors’ struggle toward the same linkage of awe toward ultimate reality and consolidation of moral effort that I find myself struggling toward.]

  2. DF says:

    Your post is a welcome breath of fresh air. Just yesterday I had coffee with two Christian colleagues, and I pondered afterwards how different our religious thinking is, or has become. This type of thinking could easily be heard in a Christian church; it would never be heard in most mainstream orthodox synagogues. And yet, by the mere fact that you’re writing about it, and we’re commenting, it is evident there is an audience for it.

    What Miles concludes is really not that much different than the Book of Job: He is God, and men are mere men, so what then do we have to talk about? Your problem with his essay is that it glosses over the importance of action. That may be, but it’s apparent your understanding of “action” is defined mainly by Talmudic law. (For otherwise, a large portion of the Torah’s laws are anyway assumed naturally in modern civilization, and large portions of it seem to Miles and fellow-travelers as obsolete.) One cannot fault men for not sharing the orthodox Jewish premise that the Talmudic laws constitute the only true understanding of the Bible. Possibly, perhaps, one might argue that for a Jew to properly experience his religion, he must accept that premise. But for anyone else it’s simply a non-starter.

    [YA – Wasn’t saying anything remotely similar. I’m not faulting anyone, especially not Christians for failure to comply with halachos that HKBH doesn’t expect of them. I am pointing out that Jack Miles’ conception is devoid of the sense of knowing and experiencing G-d, something that non-Jews need to find without the benefit of a mitzvah system – but need to find it nonetheless. Unlike us, they are free to be a bit more unconventional in finding ways that may work. Maybe Neo-Chassidus For Non-Jews?]

  3. ej says:

    I agree with you description of Jack Miles solution as “minimalist and defeatist.” And I applaud your thoughtful essay. I just wanted to say his book on Tanach,”God:A Biography”, was very good. It is an eye opener. It was meant as a drasha on one aspect of the text, and was never intended as a personal statement of his religious beliefs and connection to God.

  4. Raymond says:

    Had I come across Bertrand Russell for the first time in my more recent years of life, I would have very likely immediately dismissed any credibility he might have, due to his hostility toward things Jewish. For better or for worse, however, I read both Bertrand Russell and Albert Camus when I was a very vulnerable and suggestible teenager. Both were such compelling writers, especially Bertrand Russell, that to this day, I have not been able to shake off their influence, no matter how much I try to immerse myself in all things Jewish.

    As for faith in G-d being strengthened or even built by carrying out the Torah’s commandments, I am reminded of how Sara Rigler has called that a form of self-hypnosis. She being a religious woman, she meant it in the most positive way possible. However, I have to honestly say that I do not find this way of thinking satisfying at all. A person can just as easily follow some false or even dangerous ideology that demands concrete actions just like Judaism does. If one becomes convinced of such beliefs through the prescribed actions, there may be nothing going on there other than cognitive dissonance. In other words, one has to justify in one’s mind why one is carrying out such actions, and so one convinces oneself that the accompanying beliefs must be true. That hardly demonstrates the validity of those beliefs.

  5. BF says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    It seems to me that the powerful ideas you cite from Rav Hirsch and the SHelah address a totally different aspect of what we call “emunah”, and do not speak at all to the question of “How can we know whether there is a G-d or whether any particular religion is the authentic way of connecting to Him?”

    When you speak of living within His law, you take as axiomatic that we know that He exists and what His law is. The deepening of emunah that you speak about does not speak to the intectual establishment of His existence, but rather to how we can deepen our emotional, spiritual and existantial connection to Him, as well as provide a framework for our intellectual knowledge to take root and flourish. But all of this can occur only after we know that He exists and what He wants. In order to know that, it seems to me that there is no escaping the need for sound logical arguments (of which, I believe, there is no dearth).

    [YA – Belief in the raw fact of G-d’s existence, and deep knowledge of Him and His ways are two points on the same continuum. True. You can’t get to the latter without first arriving at the former. My intention was only to underscore that Jack Miles, at least in this piece, got stuck at the first position and apparently did not move on. (If he did, he would have said so. And he is extremely critical of those who profess knowledge about specialized instruction concerning His expectations.) I then suggested that according to some stellar figures in our mesorah, we have some understanding of just how humans might develop a relationship with HKBH – and in such a way that they can assure themselves that this feeling of spiritual euphoria is not the result of simpy wanting it.]

  6. Selah L says:

    “Within the law, within living the life of Torah Jews, we connect with Him, we experience Him not in a random, chaotic manner, but according to a coordinated, systematic plan that He Himself mapped out, and then engineered our souls to be responsive to it”

    This is it beloved Rabbi Adlerstein!

  7. DF says:

    Thanks for your clarification, I misunderstood the thrust of your article. Yet according to the Jewish conception, what, indeed, is the expectation God has of non-Jews? The 7 Noahide laws. And as I mentioned above, most of these are assumed naturally simply by living in modern, city-based civilization. The exceptions are the prohibition on blaspheming God, but even that is not something commonly engaged in, if only because of neglect. Would mere adherence to these laws, then, for a non-Jew, constitute the experience of God? Or would you say – something of a novel explanation (chiddush) – that the Talmud means this only as a minimum, but really they are encouraged to keep more commandments? I can easily cite Talmudic statements to the contrary.

    Your article really encompasses the larger question of how a Jew is to understand God’s relationship with non-Jews. A traditional belief you and I are both familiar with has it that God relates to Jews on an individual level (hashgacha pratis) but to non-Jews on a general level. Really? How are we to square that, then, with the numerous statements of Christian writers down through the centuries in which they described feeling God at their side? That, at certain great moments in their life, they knew God was with them? These statements – and I’ve heard them often, simply from Christian friends and acquaintances – put the lie to the belief that God only intervenes personally with Jews.

    The point is, its not easy for Jews to determine for a non-Jew the experience of God. We cannot impose our requirements on them, yet we patronize them by prescribing minimalist requirements (the 7 Nohide laws), the soft bigotry of low expectations. I realize you were kidding with suggesting neo-chassidus, but its a good illustration of what I mean. Putting on peyos is as meaningless to them as fasting in Ramadan, or as the holiday of (say) Easter is to us. It may be root and branch, but Christianity is not Judaism. I don’t know whether Miles is Christian or Deist of whatnot, but I know this – he’s not Jewish. If he finds meaning in what seems to you a minimalist conception of God, who are we to frown upon that?

    [YA -First paragraph – Whether the Noachide Laws amount to nothing more than a bare-bones set of rules for maintaining societal cohesion or are part of a religion for non-Jews seems to be a machlokes Rambam and the Sefer ha-Chinuch. The latter sees the seven as categories that subsume other obligations. Whatever cites in the Gemara you come up with, you will also have to deal with the Teshuvas ha-Rambam that non-Jews who elect to perform other mitzvos properly are rewarded for their efforts.

    Second paragraph – Important enough that I turned it into an independent posting.

    Third paragraph – Not frowning on anything other his inability to get beyond the point he arrives at. According to my thinking, eh could get a lot further, even without performance of Jewish mitzvah]

  8. David Z says:

    @Raymond: We are first and foremost discussing that the purpose of the commandments is connecting, not whether the Torah is a Good or not. That is a completely separate discussion. But once your (or your parents before you) decide/d that it is a Good (or at least True), then this is the way to connect through it. The way you are trying to use Sara Rigler’s ideas is circular. Of course the very fact that the commandments connect us to the ideas behind them does not make them Good.

    For many of course, the decision to use the commandments to connect to G-d is made consciously at some point. Either they did not grow up with the commandments or they reached a point as a teen or young adult where they engaged in critical thought rather than floating with the Orthodox current. Their reason led them (back) to the Torah and now they can use the commandments to reinforce it and connect them. It reminds me of when I was a teenager and, using my intellect, had to pick which version of Orthodox Judaism I thought best, which yeshiva I thought was the best of the bunch, and then go their for some brainwashing. Didn’t really work, but it was worth a try. 🙂

  9. Emunah says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. I think that emunah is one of the greatest challenges of our generation and is something many of us struggle with on some level.

    In your response to BF, you write:

    “Belief in the raw fact of G-d’s existence, and deep knowledge of Him and His ways are two points on the same continuum. True. You can’t get to the latter without first arriving at the former.”

    How would you suggest developing the former?

    Once one has solidified his or her belief in G-d, there are many methods and approaches for “deepen[ing] our emotional, spiritual and existential connection to Him” – as BF wrote so eloquently. However when those methods are used without first establishing a firm foundation, the entire structure of one’s emunah and avodas Hashem will be less solid.

    Further, how firm do you think one’s belief needs to be in G-d’s existence before moving on to the next step of deepening our knowledge of and relationship with Him? Most people I have spoken to about these issues say that they are 100% sure of the truth of their beliefs. Is it really possible to be that certain or should we be satisfied with less certainty?

    [YA – These two questions span a huge distance of difficulty. I don’t know if there is a single approach, or even group of approaches, that will work for a given individual. Personally, I am more than suspicious of “magic bullet” approaches. The advice of the Nesivos Shalom (“A Jew must have emunah that he has emunah”) resonates. So does the idea in the Shalah that I pointed to in my essay (Hashem placed an ohr of emunah within the practice of each mitzvah). Practically, a person dealing with this issue should try to find as many sensitive, insightful people to discuss it with as possible.

    The second is easier. I’m not sure whether the people who report 100% constant emunah are themselves reporting accurately, but they are not the only ones out there. According to Rambam, emunah is one of the 613 mitzvos – and the way he describes it, it is not a simple yes or no answer. This implies that it is a process (and perhaps a struggle and nisayon ) to get there. Some people have been honest in describing the vacillating that some people experience, including the Slonimer Rebbe – who mentions the struggle against doubt again and again and again. It was clearly something he saw in his flock. The response has to be to keep seeking ways in which Hashem will show Himself, just as Avrohom Avinu had to seek Him for decades before He revealed Himself to him. This includes davening for His help in the process, and maintaining full observance even when He remains distant and obscure]

  10. One Christian's Perspective says:

    [YA – Belief in the raw fact of G-d’s existence, and deep knowledge of Him and His ways are two points on the same continuum.

    Forgive me for jumping in on this discussion which I found terribly confusing most of the time but refreshing when I came to Rabbi Adlerstein’s comment above. Being a Christian for a number of years, there is a verse written on my heart that has been my guide through all the years from when I first heard of from a friend and later read it. It is Proverbs 3:5-7 “Trust in the L-RD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding ; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path”.

    “Trust in the L-ORD” to me, implies you believe God is therefore, trust = faith. “Lean not on your own understanding” to me, implies an active trusting by relying on who G-D said He is by His written word, the Bible and what He has done in your life: prayers answered, wisdom supplied, correction/discipline applied and the number of other ways He has revealed Himself. I agree that there is a continuum that begins with trust/faith but because of human fears that arise from events that are threatening to an individual at a point in time, the response may be to fight,flee or freeze. That G-D allows us our moments of unbelief (this is the case when our view of G-D is too small and our trust is even smaller) is a testament to His mercy because he uses our “leaning on our own understanding” as a teachable moment ……after we have come to our senses and turned back to Him . “Acknowledge Him in all your ways”, for me, is to keep remembering all those events G-D entered your life in the past and keep Him in your focal in everything you do. When you do all these things, He certainly will direct your path. I have personally experienced all of these things when confronted with a difficult situation where my response was to “fight against” and then within a day came to a fuller understanding of how G-D was expecting me to act and when in trembling fear I trusted in Him and proceeded based on a passage He has revealed in the Bible, the situation dissolved into a very agreeable event for all involved. It ended up the best outcome of what I deemed an improbable situation; I was wrong. Trust is not always a smooth ride especially when tested.

    While writing this, I could not help but think of Abraham who was deemed a righteous man because he believed God. He left his homeland and family to travel to a place he had not known. Yet, Abraham had his moments along the way. His fears overcome him but he never forgot G-D. In his later years, he was asked to offer his son Isaac a a burnt offering on one of the mountains G-D would show him. At the moment when he stretched out his hand to slay his son, the Angel of the L-ORD stopped him and said “now I know that you fear G-D, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Over the years, Abraham had reached a very deep understanding of G-D and His ways and trusted in His Covenant promises that G-D would provide Abraham an heir from his own body. He shared that confidence with Isaac with the words “G-D will provide for Himself a ram for the burnt offering. You could say Abraham trusted in G-D and , in doing so, sacrificed his own will to G-D’s request.

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