Sunday, November 08, 2009

This May Or May Not Be My God

A friend of mine told me that he remembers when a ba'al teshuvah (new to observance) yeshiva in the 1970's removed its copy of Herman Wouk's This Is My God from its library because the book said that it is acceptable not to believe in God. Now, considering that the book is a classic of the outreach literature that brought countless Jews back to their religion, I found it hard to believe. My friend's memory must be faulty.

I looked closely at the book and in the Epilogue to the original 1959 book (it has since been expanded twice -- in 1969 and 1987) it does say that one can choose whether or not to believe in God. Here is an excerpt that shows his clear lack of assertion that he has the absolute truth (p. 249):

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Though I have lived my life as an observant Jew, I have never been able to pretend to religious certainties. I have found it impossible to join in cheerleading condemnations of Reform, Conservatism, and irreligious Zionism; and for all my too-frequent public speaking, I have never denounced the assimilators.
This is a passage that makes me squirm. I'm just not too sure how ingenuous it actually is. The entire book passionately and eloquently advocates an Orthodox point of view, even if being polite to the non-Orthodox movements.

Wouk's next step in his Epilogue is to apply his uncertainty to the existence of God. However, I think that reading this superficially is a profound misunderstanding of Wouk's point. He was writing in a time of American belief in "progress" -- the salvation of the world through science and scholarship. Marxism was still considered a highly successful and idealistic ideology.

Wouk began his discussion by lauding the thinking questioner who at least struggles with belief in God. One should not be too certain in the forces of "progress." He then proceeds to explain that there is no way to prove or disprove God's existence. This was remarkable in that he allowed room for belief in God, something that few popular intellectuals of that time would.

Wouk was urging readers to move beyond the unthinking naturalism that was popular in his time and the atheistic Existentialism that was rising in prominence (think Sartre), and instead embrace an Existential approach that allows for personal choices on matters of profound meaning. Since he could not prove God's existence, he instead discussed a person's options (p. 257):
The paradox of existence stands. Take one side of it, and go on your way with the chance-nature dogmas. Take the other side of it and -- if you are a Jew -- you will probably find the Lawgiver waiting for you. He will meet you with the smile and the embrace of my grandfather. "What kept you so long?" he will say. And you will sit down to study the Torah together.
I understand why this would irk outreach rabbis who believe that they can prove God's existence. However, to those more in touch with contemporary intellectual discussion -- certainly in the 1960's and 1970's -- those proofs rang hollow. Wouk instead offered Orthodox Judaism as a compelling religious approach and left it up to the reader to choose to believe in God.

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