Whenever the issue of religion arises in conversation I rarely shy away. Like politics, it is among the socially taboo topics, nevertheless I love to discuss both. For many Christians, a Jew willing to discuss religion is a rare find. Unfortunately, many take this as an invitation to the missionary impulse and they make an effort to convince me of their beliefs. I listen politely because I am always curious about other perspectives. I do quickly let them know that they are distinctly “barking up the wrong tree.” Typically, when I explain that I don’t believe in the afterlife they are dumbfounded and many of them give up here in confusion. Those who press on ask if I am worried for my soul; no I don’t believe in souls either. No afterlife (heaven or hell) and no souls? Well that pretty much defeats the reasoning behind their arguments. It is fine for others to believe in these things, but I don’t. Most Jews believe as I do, although few are so patient as I am to entertain these conversations.
Likewise, when I meet fellow Jews and religion comes up, as is often the case among Jews, and they find out that I do not believe in the authority of Talmud, I don’t separate meat and dairy, or wrap tefillin. This is strange to many Jews because it involves questions they were never allowed to ask about matters even their Rabbis don’t really understand because they themselves were not allowed to ask. If no one can question the Rabbi who taught them, there will be a broad range of matters about which everyone is ignorant. Especially, when one asks from where Rabbinical authority comes… How could anyone dare to challenge the authority of the Rabbis? I represent a rewinding of Judaism to an earlier and purer ancient version that most Jews know nothing about; including the most celebrated of Ravim (Rabbis). Meanwhile, most secular Israelis agree that my position is right, but they still don’t feel like observing the Torah commandments even to the degree that I do.
I chose to join the Karaite Jewish movement because they represent the closest organized belief system to mine. Even among my fellow Karaite Jews, it is unusual that I do not believe in resurrection, “miracles,” or a coming Mashiach. Among them I am occasionally mistaken for being merely a secular Jew who is not religious; but this is not the case either. Judaism does not require a belief in, well, anything. The Torah does not command us to believe anything. Hashem proved His existence by His works in Egypt and by protecting the Jewish people throughout history. One need believe in nothing more than the proof of their own eyes. The Torah is a system for governing a nation of people into a healthy and righteous tradition and lifestyle. It was given in a particular cultural context so many of the laws no longer apply to us, but the principals have stood the test of time. It is an objective truth that the Jewish national tradition is the most successful tradition in the history of mankind.
Why I don’t Believe in…
This all leads me to the frustrating experience of constantly having to say “I don’t believe in…” I am rarely given the opportunity to state what I do believe in. Obviously, those who proselytize to me expect me to have patience and listen to their pitch, but they rarely have the patience to listen to mine; fewer still truly try to understand my position. When I do get a word in edgewise my point is usually ignored, because it is a unique position that the person hearing for the first time or they genuinely do not know enough to counter. If a person has never heard of a concept before and thus has no way of working with it or twisting it to make their own point, they are likely to be confused and lost. One person I talked with eventually took the tangent: “have you heard of so and so? Like you he didn’t believe in anything either, but now he does. You should check out his books.” Actually, I believe in many things, I simply do not believe in the same things that person believes in. That does not mean I do not believe in anything. I have been accused of nihilism on more than one occasion. To believe differently than others is not to say one believes in nothing, it is to say that one believes in something else. Since I do not proselytize, or try to convince others to believe as I do, I do not have ready arguments available to make.
This article is in part to vent my frustration at these one-sided conversations, but also to offer a testimony of what I do believe in. I am a person who has walked a unique path in life. I suffered terrible childhood trauma that should have ruined my life all together. Only later did I find out I am a walking miracle. Most people who have suffered what I have suffered and whose mental illness is as severe as mine, die young, end up in prison, or lead a dissolute life of drug use. Depression and anxiety are powerful illnesses that kill many people each year, although they receive only minuscule attention. For those few of us who truly overcome this illness, it is an accomplishment that is nothing short of a miracle.
I do not believe in the supernatural, but I do believe in miracles; they happen all around us every day. I am one of those miracles, after all. Most people miss these miracles because they are too busy looking for supernatural ones. My path has led me on a search for the best tradition to secure for myself and my family going forward a healthy lifestyle. I have been guided down this path by Hashem, the one true deity. No one can tell me I do not know the truth or that I was misled. If so then they are calling Hashem (G-d) Himself a liar. Everything I have come to believe has been revealed to me by the divine Himself (masculine pronouns used here as gender inclusive – gender neutral). My conviction here is as strong as anyone else’s. Still, I am always on the defensive.
My Personal Story
I have never bothered with fitting in. Most of my life other people have treated me as if I were less than a real person (ergo my often dark poetry). I don’t believe in anything just because another person believed it. Everything I believe I hold to be true because it is the objective truth analyzed with my own intelligence and based upon my own life experiences. Why should I believe in Hell, for example, because others believe in it? I lived it for the first five years of my own life. Anyone who has experienced clinical depression has lived through their own personal perdition. It was not some demonic fallen angel that created my living hell, but human beings driven by mental illness, insecurity, and substance abuse. I experienced near death situations on several occasions in those years; I was a victim of attempted murder. So, forgive me if I regard other people and their opinions with a degree of cynicism. I am very skeptical and I am not easily swayed.
As a result my path has led me to a place that few others have gone. I am a rationalist like most modern Jews and therefore largely secular in appearance, yet I believe strongly in the observance of the essential commandments of the written Torah and the traditions built closely upon them. It is not surprising that few people have found their way to this place since it is not an easy thing to believe. There is no profit to anyone that people believe this in any numbers and it elevates no one’s personal prestige that people believe this way. In other words, there is little motivation for thought leaders to encourage others in my general direction. It benefits no religious institution, celebrates no person living or of recent memory, and neither does it benefit total secularism that seeks to divorce everyone from religious institutions and open them to other influences. I live free of these human influences, guided by the one true deity – Hashem Himself.
It seems very obvious to me that if Hashem could guide a person directly to a genuine belief as He desired them to believe, that person would ultimately arrive where I am. Why would Hashem want us to believe the opinions of mere men over the words of His own law? Why would He want us to choose to believe blindly and ignorantly in the supernatural and magic without thought? Why would He want to empower human leaders to alter the beliefs of others to suit their own interests? To the degree that any of those things would be necessary to a given society, Hashem would keep those institutions to a minimum and the power of those men highly limited (as He does in the Torah).
Somehow, people think that because my beliefs do not easily align with those of large groups of other people, I must certainly be mistaken. Obviously, I just need to read this book, examine that scripture, or listen to this or that sermon or lecture. No, I believe what I believe. I believe it because it is what Hashem has taught me. It is what He taught to Moshe (Moses), to the Zadokite Priests, and to brilliant men like Baruch Spinoza. Quite simply, I am right and I see no reason why I should change. The way I believe will be unpopular for many reasons, but especially since I place all of the responsibility for good conduct upon the individual. While an individual can be encouraged toward the right path by good upbringing, education, and positive influences, each person must choose to behave. There are no excuses for bad conduct.
Most of modern Judaism is in general agreement with my position more or less. Modern Hinduism has been slowly evolving in this general direction for the last 1300 years or so since the rise of the Vadaita movement with its own conception of Panentheism: Nirguna Brahman. The Sikh religion likewise embraces a single deity and a set of beliefs similar to Panentheism. Neo-Confucianism is also in a similar light with its emphasis upon the improvement of the individual to improve the family, community, and nation. A growing movement toward secularism and rationalism in Islam is likewise very close to the same concept. Christian Deism and secular deism are in this vein as well. So I am not truly alone in my beliefs. It could be argued that many faiths are slowly evolving toward this conception of the universe and human conduct. If you find yourself agreeing with me, in part or in whole, then please feel free to join me.
Most Jews are just a degree or two from being in complete agreement with my position. Some lack only the belief in the Jewish national tradition and the need to study and observe the Torah as written. I agree with Karaite tradition on most interpretations of Torah and the Karaite tradition agrees 99% of the time with the Rabbinical tradition, although they arrive at these conclusions by way of very different reasoning. Obviously, I do not subscribe to an orthodox interpretation of either tradition, but the point of the exercise, in my opinion, is to be disciplined, law-abiding, and to walk the path of righteousness…
I Believe In…
We are all one with Hashem.
Hashem, G-d, the Universe (or Multiverse if you will) causes all things to exist. Nothing exists except in consequence of Hashem and all things that exist are part of Him. Each life form represents a living part of Hashem and each sentient being all the more so. We are made in Hashem’s image in that we are sentient like the sentient universe that is Hashem. Hashem is the natural world and more (Panentheism). When a sentient being is conceived, the “ocean” that is Hashem becomes the drop that is the individual; and upon the individual’s death the drop becomes the ocean. Why Hashem creates life or creates individuals who perceive themselves to be separated from Him is something we cannot know. It simply is. Nevertheless, we are all one. When one does harm to another, they do harm to themselves.
Mankind is thus left with the choice of living in a world of cruelty, misery, and oppression or one of peace, order, love, kindness, and freedom. Hashem has shown the path to the latter and humans have too often easily fallen into the former. Those who walk the Path of Righteousness, who obey the laws of the Torah, are working toward a better world that is created by general human discipline and kindness. Likewise, those who do not walk the Path of Righteousness may occasionally transgress these laws and cause harm to others. Some people are truly wicked and cause a great deal of harm to others very deliberately. The wicked will test our resolve to be righteous, we must not waiver.
The Holy Nation of Israel was created by Hashem at His direction as the firstborn child among the nations to provide an example of righteous conduct to the world. Hashem blesses and protects this nation (the Jews) when they are righteous. When the Jews are not, He curses us and punishes us such that we will return to the proper path. Observing the Torah involves resting on Shabbat, joining the covenant (B’rit), observing the Jewish holidays, eating according to the dietary laws, observing the laws of ritual purity, being holy (disciplined and dedicated to Hashem), observing the applicable commandments and laws of the Torah, and not deviating from these into idolatry and indiscipline.
The basic concepts that underlie these are:
1. Panentheism – Hashem represents a conscious universe wherein He controls the forces of nature (as opposed to Dualism or Pantheism).
2. Truth of Torah – The Torah represents either divine revelation or the collective wisdom of many generations of Jews learned through observation, precedent, and error; either way it is divine and should be followed.
3. Path of Righteousness – Living a life of kindness and decency doing as little harm to others as possible and uplifting others responsibly to the greatest degree possible.
As the great Jewish (Rabbinical) scholar Hillel once said of Torah observance: “What bothers you don’t do to others, and the rest is commentary.”