Commentary Magazine


The God I Believe In, by Joshua O. Haberman

Multiple-Choice Judaism

The God I Believe In.
by Joshua O. Haberman.
Free Press. 264 pp. $24.95.

Recently retired from the rabbinate and various adjunct professorships in Jewish studies, Joshua O. Haberman, a scholar of 19th-century Jewish philosophy, has sought to clarify his own theological positions through “some serious discussions on religious beliefs with a diverse group of prominent Jews, not merely rabbis and theologians but a cross-section of Jewish intellectuals.”

The sample, though not scientifically devised, does exhibit considerable diversity: three scientists, two novelists, two philosophers, a hasidic rebbe, a hero of the Jewish resistance movement in the Soviet Union, a university president, a convert who has become a rabbi, a theologian, an editor, and a leading Talmudist. The Jewish backgrounds represented run the gamut from that of Philip Leder, the renowned Harvard geneticist, who places his Jewish education “on a second- or third-grade level,” to that of Adin Steinsaltz, the prolific commentator on the Talmud, who is possessed of an encyclopedic command of traditional rabbinic sources. As for the religious beliefs of the interviewees, these too are widely and interestingly divergent, ranging from the mystical Orthodoxy of Levi Isaac Horowitz (the “Bostoner Rebbe”) to the unyielding materialism of Leder, who thinks that “spirituality as we experience it will eventually be explicable in molecular chemical terms.”

After a mostly autobiographical introduction, in which Haberman chronicles his own intriguing journey from “a secularized, religiously unobservant family in Vienna” into the American Reform rabbinate, the book consists of fourteen transcribed interviews and a concluding reflection by Haberman. The questions posed to each interviewee are of the sort that “a secularized, religiously unobservant” but thoughtful person would first think to ask a Jewish believer:

What is the evidence for faith? What is meant by an experience or encounter with God? What is revelation? What happened at Mount Sinai? How can messages from God be verified? Does faith in God affect one’s moral life? What does prayer accomplish? Is there a soul and a life hereafter? Are Jews the chosen people? Where was God at the Holocaust? What about the Messiah? Does God act in history? What is the religious meaning of the State of Israel?

Haberman varies the phrasing of his questions to take account of an individual’s biography, and sometimes poses a follow-up. This does not, however, provide much mitigation of the major weakness of the book, which is its tendency to read like a questionnaire rather than a set of sustained theological inquiries accessible to laymen.

There are, to be sure, moments that provide a window into deeply moving spiritual struggles, as when Natan Sharansky tells how he reacted when he was about to be released from a Soviet prison camp without his Hebrew Book of Psalms:

When, at the end of my imprisonment, they took everything from me before sending me away and when they took me to the airfield, I understood that almost all my strength in all those years came from that little book and I cannot leave it. That’s why I threw myself into the snow, because I was afraid if I now gave up, I would lose all my world. It summoned up my resistance to the KGB not to let them take away from me all those values.

But such moments do not last long here, and their implications are seldom drawn out in a satisfying fashion. Haberman is continually hurrying to the next question on his checklist.

The answers, too, are often just as unsatisfying—not because an interviewee lacks thoughtfulness (though this is sometimes the case), but because the conversational format does not allow for the careful, nuanced statement the question requires. In some instances (notably in the remarks of Steven T. Katz, a scholar of modern Jewish philosophy at Cornell), the replies are more developed, and conversation yields to something like a mini-lecture. But when ideas move to front and center, the sense of the person voicing them necessarily recedes to the point where one wonders whether an anthology of essays might not have been a more appropriate vehicle than a set of transcribed interviews. About half the people who appear here have published such essays, and their ideas are much more compelling in that format than in this one.

Where the interview format does become useful is in exploring religious experience (in contrast to theological opinion). In this domain, there are indeed a few surprises, as when COMMENTARY’s editor-in-chief, Norman Podhoretz, mentions “a mystical religious experience [that came] in connection with a crisis, a spiritual crisis. . . .” But even in this case, where the question-and-answer format might have developed something otherwise unavailable, Haberman fails to follow up, preferring to move on to his next big theological issue. Thus, after Podhoretz defines the episode as “a blazing experience of illumination,” there is this exchange:

Q: A sense of release?

Podhoretz: No, a sense of understanding. And what I understood, as I came to think about it, was what the Bible tells us about God and about the nature of the world and about law.

Q: Is God to you a source of ideas or the transcendent creator?

_____________

 

Another theoretical advantage of the interview format is that it gives the interviewer a chance to put forward opposing considerations, thus forcing the respondent into deeper reflection than a monologue is likely to yield. But here again, Haberman’s need to cover the bases and his excessive deference to his distinguished interlocutors cause him to forfeit some precious opportunities.

A particularly poignant example is the statement by the novelist Cynthia Ozick that she totally “reject[s] any notion of afterlife,” which Haberman fails to challenge despite the centrality of this idea in the classical rabbinic tradition and Ozick’s own membership in an Orthodox synagogue. What is more surprising is that he interviewed her less than three months after his conversation with the Reform theologian Emil Fackenheim, who movingly describes how the Holocaust gave him additional pause about the “silly and superficial” objections to the notion of a world-to-come in Reform Judaism:

Now what if one were to say with Jewish tradition that all people who had the chance, not only Jews, of course, but others as well, to do something noble, worthwhile, it isn’t just the deed which will be forgotten, it’s the deed plus the doer. All these have a share in the world to come, but these six million have none? Now that would be a victory for Hitler even beyond the grave. . . . If there is no hereafter for such as these, then the hereafter does not exist. In other words, for anyone thoughtful enough to say at a funeral, we remember that his soul is with God and God remembers his good deeds—for any such person to say that the six million victims of the Holocaust, or the children starving to death in Africa, are forgotten as though they had never been is a most shocking thought and contrary to everything in Judaism.

It is odd that when Ozick dismisses all notions of immortality as “a superstition . . . a pleasant fairy tale,” Haberman does not counterpose this meditation by Fackenheim, a man as far from superstition and fairy tale as one can get.

Specifically, Haberman might have challenged Ozick’s position by drawing her attention to Fackenheim’s implication that without a notion of the afterlife, the Jewish world view ceases to be redemptive and instead becomes tragic. If she were still to dismiss doctrines of an afterlife, Haberman might have pressed her about her affiliation with Orthodoxy, a movement whose liturgy emphatically celebrates redemption and praises God for His resurrection of the dead. Raising these issues would not only have added drama to the dialogue; it would also have imparted a sense that the great issues of Jewish belief were being engaged and not merely reported on, and it would have given us a view of minds in action rather than of people speaking from set positions.

_____________

 

In his afterword, Haberman concludes that:

In spite of everything, Jews still believe in God and, more or less, still cling to age-old doctrines derived from their monotheistic faith. This is one of the more remarkable conclusions one may draw from our inquiry into the new condition of Jewish beliefs.

Immediately after this, Haberman disclaims any notion that his interviews “constitute a statistically correct sampling of the religious thinking of Jews throughout the world.” He still insists, however, that his fourteen prominent intellectuals “may be considered indicative of newly emerging patterns of Jewish religious thought” that give the lie to claims of “religious decline” and “the loss of faith which so often marked previous reports about the Jewish religious condition.”

It is true that quantitative instruments can miss profound spiritual and intellectual shifts, especially in the early stages, but the problems with Haberman’s sample are greater than he concedes. Can we really conclude that “Jews still believe in God” from a sample half of which is comprised of rabbis, half of them Orthodox? The quantitative measurements that have been made in recent years suggest that the most typical among Haberman’s subjects is actually Philip Leder, who has (as he says) a second- or third-grade Jewish education, does not observe kashrut, and holds a reductive view of spirituality. But even he, in keenly feeling the claims of Jewish people-hood and Jewish history, and in being married to an Israeli, is far more committed than most American Jews.

Even in the case of those who explicitly identify with the religious tradition, there is reason to doubt Haberman’s sweeping judgment that they “still cling to age-old doctrines derived from their monotheistic faith.” Cynthia Ozick’s quintessentially modern dismissal of the afterlife is one case in point. Another comes from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Israeli chemist, neurophysiologist, and Orthodox theologian who—amazingly—brands “belief in God as a redeemer and helper” as “a Christian notion,” and calls the messiah “a substitute for faith.” Leibowitz demonstrates that the deep skepticism characteristic of modern liberalism can coexist with an eminently premodern and illiberal commitment to the authority and maximal practice of halakhah (Jewish law).

In still other cases, a classical Jewish term is retained, but misleadingly, being filled with a completely new and untraditional meaning—as when the novelist Chaim Potok defines “salvation” as “the effort that we put into understanding our deepest selves in the most honest way that we can,” thus substituting the self for God in the role of savior. Whether or not this is an “age-old” doctrine of salvation, it is not the Jewish one.

_____________

 

What these examples and others like them suggest—albeit unscientifically—is that a momentous shift has indeed taken place in Judaism in recent years, but not the shift back to traditional faith which Haberman thinks he sees. Instead, the movement has been away from Judaism as an all-embracing, authoritative theological reality and legal order and toward a reconception of it, and of all religion, as a set of options from which the individual is free to draw selectively, in accordance with his pre-established personal values and private preferences. In the new pattern, “choice” becomes the highest good, and the choosing self replaces the creating and commanding God as the source of ultimate authority, substantively redefining while not necessarily dislodging the older theological vocabulary.

As Haberman’s interviews demonstrate, the nearly anarchic fluidity that the new individualism promotes can result in some moving accounts of a return to religious experience, faith, and practice. But it is unlikely that a genuine and large-scale renewal of belief in the God of Israel can take place before the extreme individualism of contemporary American Jewish culture has subsided.

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