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Belief in belief by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

This is ‘reflection’ time of the year. Time for self-analysis, angst and neurosis, feelings of inadequacy, even failure, when we try our best to judge ourselves, in the hope that God is more forgiving than we might be!

But let’s be frank. It's codswallop! Most Jews, most people, don’t live a ‘thinking life'. They don’t examine their values and ideals and thoughts and beliefs. No. Most people just carry on doing what they always do and hope and assume that God is happy with them.

So the Chassid I saw this week chatting up a non-Jewish waitress and asking her for date, will go to shul on Rosh Hashana and say the right things, perhaps--at least he’ll be seen where he needs to be seen, looking the way he’s supposed to look, and probably won't give it a second thought. He, like most of us, has been brought up to do things, dress in certain ways, speak certain languages, and belong to a particular social or religious class or clan. True, in his case his outward appearance implies he’s a religious person, but he’s religious in a social sense rather than in a spiritual sense. He accepts ideas and values that his group espouses and assumes they are correct. He would no more switch Chassidic allegiance, or deny the existence of God, than would he think of converting to Christianity or Islam or Reform.

The same, of course, goes for non-Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Humanists. They have all been brought up to accept certain values and assume they are correct, and only rarely, very rarely, will they stop to honestly examine themselves and their thoughts. Once you are on a particular treadmill, Marxist, Socialist, Conservative, Trade Unionist, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic--or conversely anti-Arab, anti-Goyim in general--there’s no argument, virtually nothing at all, that will get you to change your mind. Of course, its true that there are exceptions--swing voters, serious seekers of truth and life’s mysteries. But they do not constitute the vast majority of human beings. Indeed it could be argued that ‘simple faith’ and good deeds are enough and there’s no need to bother about great philosophical issues. But then why do religions spend inordinate amounts of energy both maki! ng and creating intellectual obligations and then hounding those who have honest difficulties with them?

The fact is as the Yiddish expression goes ‘Der Oylam is a Goylem.’ The world is stupid. Virginia Woolf said that ‘Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do.’ Most of us are stuck in our ways and thoughts. You think Tevyeh the Milkman on his way home ever really gave serious thought to the perfect unity and nature of God? Was he familiar with the Ontological proof of God’s existence? Of course not. He simply accepted what everyone else accepted. The 90% of Americans who believe in God, you think they really think about the nature of an omnipotent, immaterial, transcendent immanence?  God is Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel image, or Jesus or Mohammad and his virgins.

So if you stop your average uneducated Muslim and ask him what he thinks of Jews, of course he'll tell you they are pigs, the sons of the Devil, and ought to be put to death for killing innocent Muslims (though I doubt he’d say the same about the Sudanese for Darfur or Sunnis if he’s a Sunni or Shia if he’s a Shia ). The Hindus who demolished the Ayodiah mosque felt the same way about Muslims. And it’s the same with Nationalist Zionist attitudes to Palestinians and vice versa of course. Generalizations and clichés always miss the exceptions.

It is hard work to think, to test one's mind, to allow other ideas to present a challenge. So most don’t. They have enough pressure and tension in life without adding to their difficulties by being branded as rebels or heretics or worse. If they grew up reading the Guardian or listening to the BBC as the word of God, of course they won't readily believe another angle. We shouldn’t be surprised, and in fact we should feel sorry for them.

Daniel C. Dennett is a well known American thinker who is not religious but enjoys examining the way religions play a part in our society. His latest offering, 'Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon’, was reviewed recently in the New York Review of Books.‘Dennett …observes that belief, which means accepting certain doctrines as true, is different from belief in belief, which means believing belief in the same doctrines to be desirable. He finds evidence that large numbers of people who identify themselves as religious believers do not in fact believe the doctrines of their religions but only believe in belief as a desirable goal. The phenomenon of "belief in belief" makes religion attractive to many people who would otherwise be hard to convert. To belong to a religion, you do not have to belie! ve. You only have to want to believe, or perhaps you only have to pretend to believe. Belief is difficult, but belief in belief is easy. This is one of the important phenomena that give a religion increased transmissibility and consequently increased fitness.’

The vast majority of people in general, and Jews specifically, that I know believe in belief. They believe in ideas many of which are either poorly thought out, rationally impossible or unrealistic. They never examine them in detail. It's enough to say, ‘I believe,’ without asking what it is exactly that you actually do believe. The community will be happier to accept someone who never thinks but declares he believes, than someone who thinks deeply but has doubts or questions. Better to keep shtum and fit in. Because, in fact, the overriding belief is in survival. And survival requires obedience and conformity.

No, this is not a call to heresy or to rebel. It’s a call to be honest, to realize that once a year we need to really think about life and our values. I make a point of reading Amira Hass in Haaretz who gives a point of view that some see as pro-Palestinian but is, in fact, very humanitarian. She excoriates Israeli hypocrisy, insensitivity and occasional cruelty. I also read Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post who takes a totally right-wing, anti-Oslo, rejectionist stance. She, too, is humanitarian and is equally articulate. I find myself in between both extremes but I think I need to be challenged. I need to hear other points of view. I need to be jolted out of smugness.

Of course I know most human beings won't do this. Sadly, that is why we Jews are in the position we are. We present an alternative to Christianity, to Islam, to Socialism and to Materialism. It’s hardly surprising they don’t like us. And since they won’t even try to hear another point of view, just like Trade Unionists who won't stay to listen to Tony Blair, they walk away content in their smugness and hatreds.

My father Z”L always used to tell us that if we were the same people after these days that we were before, then it will all have been a waste of time!

Visit Rabbi Jermy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com



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