Ya Gotta Believe — Something!

When it comes to religion, Jews have trouble believing things. The American population as a whole still widely believes in religious realities: 93% believe in God or a Higher Power; 86% believe in heaven; 73% believe in hell. There are rarely enough Jews in these polls to be sure just what the Jewish parallel would be, but it surely isn’t anywhere near these figures. When it comes to God, 93% may be high – the question included belief in a “higher power” which skews the results upward — but another poll that limits the question just to “God” shows that 90% of Protestants, 79% of Roman Catholics but only 47% of Jews believe in God.

Another way of looking at it is to compare percentages of believers across countries, including Israel, where the majority is Jewish, When asked to affirm the proposition, “I know God exists and I have no doubt about it – as strong a statement as one can imagine (I mean, no doubts at all??) 62.8% of Americans answered yes. Israelis scored 43%. Even that seems like a lot, but somewhere around 19% of Israel’s population is Orthodox. Discount that 19% and you get a whole lot fewer Jews who believe in God! Orthodox Jews everywhere are likely to be believers; it goes with the Orthodox territory. The belief gap (a bad term, as we shall see, but usable for now) affects non-Orthodox Jews, specifically.

But why is that? Why do non-Orthodox Jews register so low on religious belief scales? In part it is all about “territory,” not geographical but social. It is not the case that we believe something and then learn to say it; we start by saying it, and then get so used to the sentences coming out of our mouths, that we profess to believe it, even though we may not be absolutely clear on what it is that we have said we believe.

What determines our ability to make belief statements is the territory, the people we hang around with. If they regularly say they believe this or that, the odds are we will too; and whether they say they believe or not (in the first place) depends on the institutions that hold them (and us) together. Even relatively lapsed Christians who nonetheless attend church on occasion (for social reasons, perhaps, or even out of nostalgia or habit) get used to making statements of belief, which, as I say, go with the territory. In conversation afterward, they may hedge their statements so as not to sound too literal (“I do believe in God, but what I mean by that is…”) but they are apt to have little trouble making the statements, without which, they would have to forego association with the church they still attend.

The same is true of Orthodox Jews. To be sure, people who believe strongly in God are likely to belong to synagogues where other people believe as well – belief sometimes does come first – so more believers come to Orthodox synagogues in the first place. But lots of people join Orthodoxy for reasons having nothing to do with God. They then get used to hearing (and making) sentences about God. Orthodox Jews are not more naïve, less educated, or less critical as thinkers. They just belong to language communities that take God seriously. Non orthodox Jews do not.

Belief is socially constructed. The organizations we frequent generate certain kinds of conversations, which, in turn, generate certain sentences that we get used to hearing – and then saying. Jewish organizations are good at making sentences about Israel, anti-Semitism, the state of the world, other Jews, and charitable causes (to name but a few things). But not God. Even if you are on a synagogue board, you can go for years without hearing anyone say a sentence about God.

When I consult with synagogues, I find that people have great difficulty wrapping their heads around a sentence with God in it. It is not so much that they do not believe in God, however, as it is that they do not think of themselves as people who talk about God. God-language embarrasses them. They yearn to believe in something, but they don’t know how to go about figuring out what it is.

More on this is a later posting. Suffice it to say that we suffer less from lack of belief than from inadequate language to express the beliefs we might have. The way toward belief lies in broaching conversations that are out of our comfort zone; listening to what we say; and then trying to determine what we might have meant when we said it.

The Jewish “failure to believe” is a misnomer. What is at stake is not a belief gap but a conversation gap, and for reasons I will get to later, it is time we changed the conversation.


20 responses to “Ya Gotta Believe — Something!

  1. You said it! Rabbi Jan Katzew and I taught a 3-part class this winter at WRT called “God Talk” precisely to initiate conversations about God and discovered exactly what you describe. Thanks for giving us the language to describe what many of us in the “God business” so pervasively encounter.


    • I appreciate the confirmation of my own experience. I’m going to follow this up with some other thoughts on the subject. I’ve been thinking a great deal about it. Blessings indeed! Larry

  2. Ellen Dreskin

    It’s not a question of belief, I don’t think, as much as it is a question of definition – maybe not so much “do you” or “don’t you” believe, but “what do you (or don’t you) believe ABOUT God?”

    • Yes and no. The problem is that many people will say, “I don’t believe God exists,” or something like that. So it is about existence. But you are right in that by “existence,” people imagine an actual entity, like a person, a tree, or a computer, and do not believe such an actual entity exists. As Maimonides realized, and as philosophers since have confirmed, the word “God,” ought not to be imagined as standing for an entity in the same way. The deeper problem is our language, which suggests that all sentences of the sort, “X exists” or “there is an X” or “X is Y” make us think that X is a thing, and a thing with certain characteristics, usually something with extension, something measurable, graspable, capturable in imagination as the independent thing it is. That is not true of course, but even when it is true, the things in question can be of many different sorts, and can admit many different kinds of sentences. Try, for example, “Love is blind,” a perfectly good sentence that seems to be about love, but is actually about someone who is in love — so love may be a thing, but it is something you can be in — which is not true of the subject of the sentence, “The poor fellow was not just penniless but blind as well.” More in another posting.

  3. it’s funny – I’ve said before that i went to years of hebrew school, hebrew high, USY, and grew up in a conservative family and yet we never talked about God. I think along with a conversation gap, there’s a lack of education – we haven’t learned how to believe in this world where seeing is believing…

    • I think it is a whole lot more than “seeing is believing.” We believe all sorts of things we cannot see — most of science, actually. And we see a lot that we know is illusion, so do not believe (bent sticks ponds of water). Part of the issue is the low esteem religious personnel have regarding truth ever since science replaces theology as the means of knowing what truth is. Part of it is the mistake of thinking that sentences that sound like they are affirming something as true are all judged by scientific standards as if they are science, even though many of them (which are true) do not purport to be scientific at all. Religious affirmations may be true, but not scientifically true, and never intended to fulfill the criteria that would make them true by scientific standards.

      The same is true of aesthetics. “Beethoven’s Fifth is spectacular.” Is that true. Most would say so. “Beethoven’s Ninth is better.” Is that true. Maybe yes, maybe no. If no, then maybe “Beethoven’s Fifth is better.” Or at least, “Neither is better or worse.” Is either of these true? One of the three must be true. But none of the three is true scientifically.

  4. hi larry
    looking forward to seeing you soon in AZ! this piece was right on the money! (lauren sent it to me)
    i grew up in a very zionist home with absolutely no mention of Gd, and went to a conservative hbrew school thru 10th grade !! and hardly heard talk of Gd! so… the only thing i can’t figure out is how i turned out such a believer…
    talk to you soon,

  5. I think, with Rabbi Arthur Green, we don’t want ideas about God that insult our intelligence. He said (I think) that when our ancestors came out of the ghettos they truncated their ideas of God to (1) be socially acceptable, and (2) avoid certain confusions with Christianity. In an earlier post, you also were talking about that what joining the modern nation-state cost. …I don’t want a childish idea of God or religion. If I’m going to make myself vulnerable by talking about God, at least let me be thinking & feeling beyond that.

    • I am not sure I agree with Art. I’d have to talk to him about it. He may have in mind the kabbalistic complexity and see that as being watered down into simplistic imagery. But I suspect most Jews never understood the finer philosophical nuances of kabbalah and Hasidut, and I suspect also that those who did and who traded them in for a pottage of Enlightenment stew opted for equally sophisticated philosophical ideas from academia. The culprit, if there was one, was the impact of eastern European ethnicity paired with socialism and the relative absence of religious reform in eastern Europe — where the rabbinate remained reactionary and people rebelled against it with no alternative models of religious sophistication relative to the very cogent models of Jewish nationalism and economic universalism.

  6. Hi, Larry.

    I find that when I talk to people about their beliefs, most will say that they believe that their lives “matter” beyond their mere physical existence. Most will say that they believe that there is a moral code to the universe that is more than a mere human construction. (E.G., They believe that murder is existentially wrong; it’s not just a rule to keep society from misery). Most will say that they believe they need to live their lives with regard for something greater than themselves, even if they have difficulty naming what that “something” is. And, I should add, most of these people also say they don’t “believe in God.”

    I suggest to these people that “God” is the word we use to describe that something that makes life matter, that gives reality to morality, and that makes us aspire to more than our own pleasure. Somehow, that seems to make a big difference. Given that definition, many say that they can accept belief in God.

    I think you are correct that belief in God is largely determined by the cultural habit of actually using the word “God.” I also think that most North American Jews have never heard a definition of God that makes sense to them. Given a way of re-imagining God in a way that is in concert with their actual spiritual beliefs, I think that many more North American Jews would affirm belief in God.

    • If North American Jews have never heard of a definition of God that makes sense to them (as you put it), it is because too many North American Rabbis have colluded in not making such God-talk important to the public discourse of the Jewish community; and because secularists still control that discourse.

  7. Jordan Goodman

    Shalom Rav and All,

    Jews have left and continue to leave non Orthodox Judaism and its primary delivery system the synagogue in droves. Please help me understand how talking about “God talk” among us brings them back.


  8. Let me try again, just a little more, looking at what I mean (not Arthur Green). During my wanderings in the American culture for over four decades since confirmation, I continued to believe and “talk to” God yet such experience of God as I had was more toward Eastern and Zen. So, having found my way back to the Jewish community, I’m moved and relieved to be learning that Judaism isn’t wedded to the idea of God I as a child had thought were implied. The powerful-old-man-in-the-sky out-there-somewhere puppet master is not something I could believe in (although I may talk like that and think like that sometimes because I’m a human & a Western one).

    • I did not mean to say that we should be wedded to a fourth-grade image of God as “powerful-old-man-in-the-sky out-there-somewhere puppet master” — to use your very striking description. I applaud you on that!

  9. I’m not Jewish, and I’m not American (I’m a Roman Catholic from Argentina). Still, I find this post by the Rabbi extremely interesting.
    Reading some of the comments, I think it might be useful to define what Judaism understands by the word “God”. The book of Exodus, in 3:14 has a definition, by God Himself: “I am who am”. This definition of God is pretty exclusive: the Deities of oriental religions, by their own definition, are not included. As far as I know, Brahman is beyond being, It is not a being. And I think the same applies to Buddhism and Zen.
    As I said, I’m not Jewish, and the definition from Exodus might not apply to modern Judaism.

  10. Jordan Goodman

    Shalom Javier,

    You wrote: “The book of Exodus, in 3:14 has a definition, by God Himself: ‘I am who am’.”

    Actually the Hebrew for this verse translates, “I will be, what I will be.” This suggests the idea of an evolving God still in the process of Becoming. Check out the writing of Rabbi Rami Shapiro for more on this as well as his Panentheistic approach to God.

    Shabbat Shalom/Shavu’a Tov to all of us,


  11. Jordan,

    I have to admit that I can’t read a word in Hebrew. I used the New American Bible text (which according to Dr. Joel Hoffman is one of the best translations available).
    I’ve found Rami Rabbi Shapiro blogs, and I’ll explore them.
    Being a catholic , my view of that Exodus text is probably influenced by the greek philosophical concepts of being and logos.

  12. Rabbi Hoffman,
    Can you share a story I heard you once tell of how you experienced God in deep conversation? You described how that profound level of communication was an experience of the divine.

    • I would, if I remembered the story. I’m afraid I cannot recall what you are referring to. I probably do remember it – – one does not forget that sort of thing – – but from your description it is hard to say what you are alluding to. Sorry.

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