Can one deny the existence of God and be a good Jew?

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Dennis Prager and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin open the first chapter of their book The Nine Questions by claiming that the question of God’s existence “is life’s most crucial question”.  In spite of my great admiration for the book, and for Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin, I think that the first chapter of the book dealing with theology is in particular problematic and mistaken regarding the question of whether Judaism requires belief in the existence of God.  I want to focus on the topic of the first chapter of the book The Nine Questions – “Can one doubt God’s existence and still be a good Jew?”.

In the conception of Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin the question of the existence of God is crucial in a philosophic sense because without assuming the existence of God there can be no notion of absolute morality or ultimate purpose in life.  Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin are without doubt correct in arguing that there can be no absolute morality or ultimate purpose to life without assuming the existence of God.  However, this is a rather weak argument and irrelevant – for, it is true only in an abstract, theoretical sense.  Even if assumed that God exists (and that God has conscious will), how can we as human beings (given the limitations and subjectivity of human knowledge) determine what in the eyes of God constitutes an absolute morality and the ultimate purpose of life?  If we rely on prophetic revelation as a source of absolute and objective truth, how do we know that the prophet is not insane or hallucinating in claiming to have received a Divine communication?  If we rely upon an authoritative document such as the Torah as a prophetic source of absolute and objective truth, any document is subject to subjective interpretation!  If we rely upon tradition, how do we know whether a particular tradition has been accurately received and interpreted?  From a pragmatic point of view, we as human beings cannot escape our subjectivity even if assumed that God as a source of absolute truth and morality exists.

In my view, the question of whether God exists is not crucial at all, but a meaningless theoretical question of metaphysical speculation that ultimately cannot be answered (and the same is true of the question whether there is an absolute morality or ultimate purpose to life).  Furthermore, the question of whether God exists is an abstract question of Greek systematic philosophy, not indigenous to the Hebrew Bible.  The Biblical conception of religion is orthoprax (correct deeds) and pragmatic rather than orthodox (correct belief) and philosophic in nature.  The essence of religion in the Biblical conception is a matter of moral character necessarily expressing itself in proper behavior as reflected in the verse “you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – and, the abstract question of whether God exists is thus not crucial and even irrelevant from a religious point of view lacking any necessary connection to behavior.  The Hebrew Bible is absent of systematic philosophy, and the abstract question of whether God exists is not addressed in the Hebrew Bible – and, one may believe that God exists from a philosophic point of view and act in a completely immoral manner; conversely, one may deny the existence of God from a philosophic point of view and act in a completely righteous way.

Strikingly, the formulations of the essence of Judaism of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest Talmudic rabbis, are secular, anti-theological and orthoprax in nature in which they omit the term God – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and “love your neighbor as yourself”.  The allegedly crucial question (according to Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin) of whether God exists is not crucial in the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva.  According to a midrashic (rabbinic) teaching according to which God says “if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe”, the allegedly crucial question (according to Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin) of whether God exists is not crucial – as according to this orthoprax teaching, God declares that it would be better to abandon God (not to believe in God) but to observe the Torah (implying that more important than faith in God is good deeds).

In opening their book by claiming that the question of God’s existence “is life’s most crucial question”, Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin are faithful not to the Hebrew Bible (and not to the Talmudic tradition) but to the great medieval legal scholar and philosopher, Maimonides, who codified his 13 Principles of Faith as a binding theological and orthodox dogma constituting the first and only legal codification of a dogma in Jewish history – and, in my view, Maimonides codified a dogma only for the unlearned masses for historical reasons, and was very aware that a dogma is a distortion of the Talmudic tradition according to which the commandments of the Torah as the basis of Jewish law are only commandments of doing and not doing, and not of believing or not believing (and the Talmudic rabbis formulated no theological dogma).  Such a binding theological dogma of Maimonides reflecting an orthodox (correct belief) conception of Judaism requiring the acceptance of abstract theological principles is a complete distortion of the orthoprax (correct practice) and anti-theological nature of Biblical theology in which moral character and moral action are conceived to be the essence of religion (and proper theological belief is simply not an essential or crucial element of a religious life).

In response to their question “Can one doubt God’s existence and still be a good Jew?”, Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin claim that one may doubt the existence of God, but one may not deny the existence of God.  Their position assumes an orthodox conception of Judaism that Judaism requires the acceptance of a binding theological dogma (as codified by Maimonides), which means that fundamental philosophic beliefs cannot therefore be denied – an assumption that is at best highly questionable.  I repeat that the codification of such a dogma is a distortion of the Talmudic tradition, and I emphasize that not only is the Hebrew Bible absent of any binding theological dogma but the Talmudic rabbis did not formulate and codify any biding theological dogma.  Leaving aside the issue of whether Judaism requires a binding dogma, the main reason that Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin give for their position that one may doubt but not deny the existence of God, and still be considered a good Jew, is that “Judaism emphasizes deed over creed”, and they quote as support the midrashic teaching that I just cited – “if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe”.

I want to point out two things in this regard.  First, Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin interpret the source as teaching that “one can be a good Jew while doubting God’s existence, so long as one acts in accordance with Jewish law” – and that “a Jew who believes in God but acts contrary to Jewish law cannot be considered a good Jew”.  However, the source does not speak about Jewish law; rather, it speaks about observance of Torah.  The term Torah literally means instruction or guidance, and is far broader than the term law.  Torah in the Talmudic literature includes two kinds of guidance – Halacha (law) and Aggadah (moral, spiritual and philosophic teachings); and, there is a widespread position in the Jewish tradition that Aggadah (moral and spiritual guidance), and not Halacha (law), is the essence of Torah and Judaism.

According to the Biblical conception of religion as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” the essence of religion is not only morality above ritual (as reflected in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible), but a meta-Halachic (non-legal), moral demand of proper behavior above and beyond the fulfillment of commandments in a legal sense.  Indeed, the previous verse (Deuteronomy 6, 17) demands observance of commandments in a legal sense – “You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you“.  The demand to do “that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” is evidently then a general moral demand beyond the observance of specific commandments.  That is, the observance of specific commandments (Deuteronomy 6, 17) is an expression of the righteousness and goodness that God demands in general (Deuteronomy 6, 18).  In the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva the essence of Torah (Judaism) is morality (“what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and “love your neighbor as yourself”) and not belief in the existence of God nor observance of Jewish law.  Thus, according to the Biblical conception and the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, Jews who are not observant of Jewish law may nonetheless be considered good Jews by virtue of moral behavior in thus fulfilling the essence of a life of Torah.  Thus, it is simply not true that the midrash “if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe” is teaching that one must be observant of Jewish law in order to be considered a good Jew.  Rather, it is teaching that one must be observant of Torah.

Second, the midrashic teaching “if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe” contradicts the position of Dennis Prager and Rabbi Telushkin that one can doubt but not deny the existence of God in order to be considered a good Jew!  The teaching is clearly not speaking about one who has casted doubt upon the existence of God but about one who has denied the existence of God as reflected in the word “abandon”.  If the reason that one may doubt the existence of God is that “Judaism emphasizes deed over creed”, then there is no compelling, logical reason that such an argument should not apply even to the situation where one denies the existence of God.  This is clearly the intent of the teaching “if only Me they would abandon but My Torah they would observe” – one may deny the existence of God and still be considered a good Jew because good deeds take precedent over theology.

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Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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