I remember the moment I decided I did not believe in God. It was the year after I’d graduated from college and I had been called home from abroad by my family because my grandmother was in the hospital. A non-serious condition had taken a turn for the worse and surprisingly, my family was faced with the dreaded choice of whether or not to keep her on life support. The decision was made to turn off the machines with the expectation that she would die soon after, probably before I could get home. But instead she lived for two weeks.
I stood by her bedside with others in my family as she struggled to go from life to death. I watched this soft-cheeked woman who let us kids eat all her honey cough drops and gave me pearls for my 21st birthday, plead to be set free of her body and I thought, “There is no God.” No God because this woman was kind and gentle. She kept kosher. She didn’t deserve this.
My friend who studies Buddism thinks this is a very “American” idea of God. That Americans believe life should not be hard or painful. If this is true, then when something really awful happened it shattered my idea of fundamentally how things should be. I blamed it on God.
I never really had an articulated sense of what God is. In Judaism it seems the concept of God has some agency; God wants, God commands, etc. This trips me up. It just doesn’t seem possible.
Recently I began reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew, a book of correspondence between an American Buddhist (who was born Jewish) and a rabbi. The Buddhist is trying to figure out if he can find a place for himself in Judaism and his questioning is very direct. The reading is mostly over my head. It is like listening in on a conversation between two people who are arguing points of physics. I want to understand.
Early on, the Buddhist tells the rabbi, “Although Zen Buddhism does not deny the existence of a Divine force at work in the Universe, it does not focus on a God who must be obeyed, or more importantly, believed in.”
The rabbi responds:
There cannot conceivably be anything more important than the existence of God. In the light of God’s existence literally everything takes on vastly greater proportions; not only do moral obligations, for example take on meaning in the deepest sense, but the very notion of meaning itself comes to life. In a godless Universe, does anything really matter? … This is not a matter for simply “not denying.” If one comes to the conclusion that the Universe has a conscious Creator and Master, all one’s investigations and subsequent conclusions will be radically different in the deepest way. And if one comes to the opposite conclusion, then quite frankly, for me on a personal level the discussion loses most of its flavor.
This struck me. I will not choose to believe, but I am impressed by the rabbi’s assertion that life is flat and flavorless without God. What is he talking about? I wonder if there is a problem of words. Creator and Master, these make me uncomfortable. I’m open to a new understanding of the concept.
Both traditions, Buddhism and Mussar (a form of Jewish practice), are adamant that the spiritual path is not self-help. There should be an acceptance of an ultimate truth. Sometimes I feel like a faker, but I know that in Judaism the act of questioning is welcomed and expected. What matters is what you do.