Updated: Dec 27, 2018
We may need God to “hope against hope,” to dream the impossible dream, but such freedom involves a leap of imagination, not of religious faith
Growing up, God was never far away, and often up above. It’s not merely because I was born and raised in Jerusalem – where God is apparently so high up above as to overlook the municipal neglect down below – but because, to my family, large and small, He was omnipresent, and always calling the shots.
“Kullu min-Allah,” my grandfather used to say. Though Jewish and a Hebrew speaker, he turned to his native Iraqi Arabic to profess the obvious: “Everything’s from God.”
Is it? I started having doubts early on, too early for my own peace of mind. But it was only following my Bar Mitzva that I began to rebel.
My family was still following what Israeli sociologists like to call “traditionalism”: neither secular, nor religious – holding a Kiddush, later watching TV (beaming, next to the dining table, through a fabric covering it until the Kiddush was over); never lighting fire on Shabbat, but occasionally riding a car; observing every holiday, but rarely praying three times a day.
If you believe in God, I told my elders, obey His commands, however taxing; if you don’t, stop pretending.
In retrospect, I can appreciate the moderation my grandparents brought to the table: rules should not be broken, but can be bent, to accommodate changing circumstances, even personal whims. But back then, I resented the ambiguity and gleefully picked holes in this “organized hypocrisy.” Like the prophet Elijah chiding his people, I could have portentously proclaimed “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.” If you believe in God, I told my elders, obey His commands, however taxing; if you don’t, stop pretending.
“And the people answered him not a word,” says the Bible on the reaction to Elijah’s demand. But I got my answer alright. Our domestic matriarchy – my parents and three siblings – gradually turned from traditionalist to religious. No more quasi-translucent cloth to cover the TV; the screen was off, darkly reflecting a party of five enjoying Friday dinner under the sheltering sky, a sixth member wondering if it’s empty. The more my mother turned to religion, the more secular I became.
This mirror was equally telling of my people, Israeli society torn between devotions – religious and secular, sociopolitical camps increasingly hostile towards one another. Israeli politics, domestic and international, have never been wholly secular; after all, how could Zionism make its claim to the “holy land” without referring to the scriptures? But Judaism – its beliefs and practices – rarely took center-stage in the formative years of modern Jewish nationalism.
Downplaying Judaism... sustained Israel as a delicate balancing act called “Jewish and democratic state.”
Downplaying religion allowed Israel to walk the tightrope stretching between the sacred and the secular, between tradition and modernity. It sustained Israel as a delicate balancing act called “Jewish and democratic state.” But in the last generation, more and more Israelis prefer to jump off the rope, taking their chances with whatever awaits below: either a Jewish state or a democratic one. We fail to realize this either/or may well lead to neither/nor.
In Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard urges us to choose between aesthetics and ethics, between self-consuming pleasures and moral reflections. But, to my mind, a problem swiftly surfaces: if you choose ethics, you often find choices are made for you – by ethicists, secular and religious alike. Ethics introduce moral dilemmas only to resolve them.
Religion foregoes, not foregrounds, freedom – and our humanity
Organized religions, like most modern ideologies, have perfected this skill: telling us moral tales, to fix them for us. Religion thus foregoes, not foregrounds, freedom – and our humanity. If God is freedom – the heart of humanity – as Kierkegaard saw Him, then religion, as institutional ethics, is antithetical to God. Religion's role has been to control, not to encourage choice, in Israel as elsewhere. Is there a way out?
Kierkegaard urged us to take a “leap of faith” beyond the either/or – onto the great beyond. The personal connection to the divine allows one to suspend the ethical – as it allowed Abraham to “hope against hope,” to (almost) sacrifice his beloved son. But Kierkegaard’s God, and that of Abraham, while seemingly championing choice, effectively demanded submission, asserting total control.
A better God, I think, presents himself to Elijah on Mt. Horeb – not in wind, earthquake and fire, He tells him, but in “the sound of a slender silence.”
This is the God of human transcendence, our unique capacity to go beyond the here and now to imagine multiple futures, and follow the best ones through, to keep hope, and Hope, alive.
Such a God, like love, exists in limbo, in the bound of heaven and hell, the either/or, only to usher in freedom – a reasoned, acted upon, choice, along with the responsibility it entails. It is this “leap of imagination” to which the atheist Jean Paul Sartre might have subscribed in Being and Nothingness.
Everything’s from God? Perhaps, but only if God is nothing(ness), out of which everything is possible – and so much of it, however unwilling we are to admit it, is still in our own hands, to make or to break.