I mean that short answer not to insult you, but rather to provide a simple answer to a simple question that many struggle with even though it is so fundamental to who we are as humans. Let me expand a bit.
It is part of human nature to look up at the stars and wonder how we got to where we are, who created us and how we are all linked together. And although your question is about “this day and age” I would argue that today is no different than our rabbinic ancestors. In every civilization, Jews have looked around and wondered about the truth of God. It is one of the beautiful things of our tradition. And although we as a people have always questioned God, the answers we find change in each generation.
In the Talmud, it is Elisha Ben Abuyah who sees the child fall from the tree and declares that there cannot be a God who allows a child fulfilling a mitzvah to die at that same moment. His response is to leave Judaism and become an apostate. While it is not the best response to the challenge of understanding God’s presence in the world, it was important enough for the rabbis to preserve that story in the Talmud and to continue to teach pieces of Torah from him. In the medieval period, Maimonides and other Jewish scholars struggled with the traditional rabbinic understanding of God and sought to work through their concerns with the help of Greek philosophy. In the modern period we see Rabbi Heschel who writes that “wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” This teaching reminds us that wonder should be our place in the world, and through it we can seek knowledge.
As a Reconstructionist, I am particularly drawn to Kaplan’s answer to the question of God. Particularly in the wake of the Holocaust, Kaplan wondered how a God could exist who would allow innocent people to die, or who could sit idly by while so much pain entered into the world. He came to a place of understanding God as a natural process rather than an active player in the world. That God was a combination of the processes of the natural world, rather than something outside of nature. I find that answer satisfied my own questioning God’s existence.
To be confused or to struggle with God’s existence is not just normal – I believe it is an inextricable part of what it means to be a Jew. The world Israel means “to wrestle with God.” What could be more Jewish than that?
I don’t mean to minimize the struggle. It is incredibly difficult and challenges us in ways that are unexpected and powerful. But I also believe that we are a stronger people with that as our legacy – a legacy where we our greatest teachers struggle with God. I hope that my offering some of the history of that struggle will bring you some comfort. My humble suggestion is that you find a teacher to work with, and that you do some of your own seeking. I believe that if you do that, you will find a response within our tradition that helps satisfy your questioning and helps you along your journey. I also believe that if you search intentionally, you will find enjoyment, enlightenment and blessing. Good luck!
Responding with another question, I could ask: how could it be possible for a normal person in this day and age not to be confused? The issue actually goes beyond our day and age: how could anyone in any time not be confused about the truth of God?
The simple answer is that, during those times in history when there were open miracles and clear prophecy, it would seem that the truth of God was pretty straightforward. In fact, the Torah text itself (Shemot 7:5, for example) states that one of the very purposes of the plagues in Egypt was to establish, without any doubt, the truth of God. Indeed, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chapter 8 points to the fact that one of the most important elements of the Revelation at Sinai is that there was no doubt, amongst those who witnessed this event, that God presented Himself at Sinai. The relevant issue for us, though, is how we are to look at this issue of the truth of God when such open miracles are not existent. Clearly, it would seem to be normal to be confused about the truth of God without such obvious evidence.
Perhaps, the clearest indication that Jewish Law recognizes the reality of this confusion is the various statements within the Halacha which accept a possible reality of lack of knowledge and confusion leading to a subsequent non-culpability for violation. Ignorance of the law, for example, is an excuse within Jewish Law; before a conviction, there must be a clear cut indication that a violator accepted the authority of the law. (See Encyclopediat Talmudit 11:292, Hatra’ah) One who was unsure of the truth of God and, as such, the authority of the law could not be found guilty. (It should be noted that there was a limitation on this principle in cases which affected societal law and order, however, a further discussion of this legal issue is beyond the parameters of the specific topic of this response.)
As another example, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 3:2 also states, although there are strict laws of censure against a heretic, one who was brought up under the influence of such heresy is basically exempt from such consequences for that person is not responsible for having such beliefs. The truth of God is not so obvious that we can expect someone to clearly have this knowledge. In addition, although I have not personally seen a statement of this nature, it is often presented in the name of the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, 1878-1953) that in the absence of clear, open miracles in our present world, it is impossible to declare anyone today a heretic subject to the censures of the law. (I should, perhaps, mention that I have seen something of a similar nature by the Chazon Ish, although not as far reaching, in his comments on the laws of kashrut.)
The greater question may now be why this is so. Why does God not make knowledge of His Existence obvious? In that God did make this Knowledge more obvious at certain times in history and less so at other times, such as our own, we may further wonder: why this is so? It must be that every generation has its own challenge that it must confront and, at times, this challenge is built upon clearer knowledge while at other times it is built upon less clear knowledge. Times of less clear knowledge demand of us, for example, to consider how we know anything and how to think and render decisions in such circumstances; this may in fact be our generation’s challenge. In a certain way the goals of Torah are measured not by the conclusions we reach but the effort that we apply in trying to meet God's goals for us. As such, the real issue for us is not the confusion about the truth of God that presently exists but rather how we respond to this challenge.
(Someone truly interested in this topic may be interested in researching the various different viewpoints that are found in Torah sources in regard to how one knows of the truth of God. Rambam, for example, clearly understood it to be a result of intellectual, logical inquiry. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Kuzari, on the other hand, felt it emerged from an intuitive perception of our souls. The very fact that there is disagreement, debate and discussion about this most basic of issues truly reveals, in my opinion, the essence of what Torah truly is about. It is a guide to our struggle with reality. To meet the challenge of this struggle is what God demands of us.)
I'm so glad you asked this question because I am sure you are not alone in wondering about this.
The short answer is “Yes.”
It has always been normal and acceptable to be confused about what you call “the truth of God” (which I understand to mean, the “true nature of God”). In every day and age, human beings have wondered about the nature of the divine, and have sought to discern the true nature of God. That truth has been elusive, and our grasp of it fleeting.
Your question reminds me of the Biblical account of the flight of Jacob, the patriarch. (See Genesis 28: 10-17) We are told that in the course of fleeing from his brother, Jacob came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night. All alone, he went to sleep, with a rock as his pillow. He dreamt of angels ascending and descending a stairway (or ladder). When he awoke, he exclaimed, “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.” (emphasis added) We usually focus only on the first part of that exclamation; I’d like us to consider both clauses. Taken together, they teach us that our patriarchs were capable of theological doubt as well as theological insight.
We can point to other examples from the Bible. Moses, we are told, pleaded with God for theological insight. He begged God to let him “see” (i.e., to understand the nature of) God. “Let me behold Your presence!” he cried. (Exodus 33:18) Moses’ request was denied: “You cannot see My face (i.e., fully understand my nature) for no one can see Me while alive (i.e., no living human being is capable of complete theological understanding).” (Exodus 33:20). And when Solomon built a Temple for God, he came to understand that “The LORD has chosen to dwell in a thick cloud.” (I Kings 8:12)
I believe that these stories were written to communicate an important religious truth: despite the intensely felt desire of human beings for theological certainty, we must be content with opacity rather than clarity.
Theological understanding has been evolving as long as the Jewish People has existed. What you personally may consider to be the “truth” about God probably wouldn’t have been considered the truth about God in some previous day and age – and probably won’t be at some time in the future.
We begin the amidah (the Jewish devotional prayer, recited while standing) by referring to the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The reason is that each patriarch envisioned and related to God in a different way. And those differences continue. My colleague, Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, has written a marvelous book entitled, The Many Faces of God: A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies. Each chapter sets forth the beliefs of a different modern Jewish thinker, and no two chapters are identical!
As to your second question, let me say from the outset that I don’t like to use the term, “good Jew.” But if what you are wondering is whether it is possible to be a faithful and observant Jew even if you have doubts concerning one or another theological principle, I believe that the answer is “Yes.”
Nonetheless, I would add one condition. Although it is certainly acceptable to be confused and/or to have theological doubts, that’s true so long as your doubts don’t turn into convictions regarding doctrines that are anathema to Judaism. For example, if you were to assert that you believed in many gods, or that you believed that God is visible and manifest in the world in the form of a particular human being, etc., then I think it’s fair to say that you would be veering from traditional Jewish belief. Of course, whether you are crossing a line depends on the Jewish community of which you are a part. I would encourage you to speak with your local rabbi to clarify this.
To conclude, doubting the truth of what some – even you -- may consider to be theological doctrine is understandable and acceptable.
I don’t know what “normal” is, and I certainly don’t know what the “truth” might be. But I would agree that there is confusion in our world, especially because of the myriad of “claims” and “beliefs” about God.
I do find, however, that those who are “confused about the truth of God” can allay their confusion by taking up the challenge of wondering for themselves about the reality – or non-reality – of God. Those who feel inertia in relationship to this issue, and those who are paralyzed with indecision – in my experience – would tend to be the most confused, or the most affected by claims and counterclaims about God.
In the Abrahamic or monotheistic religious communities, there are at least five major ideas about God that one might investigate and/or evaluate. The first is whether God created the world. Second, whether those acts of creation occurred over six 24-hour days. Third, whether God intervenes in the world today, in the same way that the Bible or Qur’an describes. Fourth, whether God cares about what occurs in the world or the universe. And fifth, whether God wants us to do anything about the imperfections that we perceive.
The problem tends to be that certain religious communities, especially those that limit questions about God, require the individual to arrive at a uniform set of answers to these five questions. Certainly in Judaism we believe that we can evaluate these questions independently from one another, and that even Jews of great religious observance may come up with different answers.
Judaism has few mitzvot (“commandments”, or “sacred obligations”) that refer directly to beliefs; the vast majority of mitzvot refer to behaviors and actions. ‘Belief’ in Judaism is present, and it evolves through the actions we perform. Since each of us performs different actions, our beliefs will be different from one another. Our beliefs will be based upon our varied experiences, not upon one common (read: narrow) set of pre-defined guidelines.
Just as our patriarchs and matriarchs had different understandings of God, so, too, can we.
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