Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

July 27, 2006

Faithless Believer

Thomas Mann once described apostasy as the greatest act of faith. However irreverent such an assertion may appear, it has an almost mathematical quality to it. An act based on lack of faith is still a faith-based act. A Jew who organises his Saturday around not going to the synagogue falls into the same category as she who does go every single week. The first believes that there is no god while the second believes that there is a god, but both are believers.

Atheism never held an appeal for me and still strikes me as being an inherently untenable position. If I were to encounter someone who believed that his next-door neighbours were keeping a great white shark in a tank beneath their home, I might choose to disagree. I do not share that belief for I have never encountered this shark nor, indeed, anything else that could lead me to the conclusion that it may exist in such a place. But I couldn't believe that they weren't doing it for the simple reason that I haven't checked!

So too with God. I have neither encountered God in my life nor anything else that has led me to the conclusion that God exists. It goes without saying that, to me, this idea is as foreign as a three-metre shark in a suburban home. Can I believe that God does not exist? No, of course not. The universe is simply too large and I am too small and there may be somebody out there who has had an experience that has led him to believe in the existence of this divinity.

Ah, so I must be an agnostic. I neither believe in the existence of a god nor will I commit myself to the belief in God's absence. I quite literally don't know and, were I to be a Christian, then that would suffice to render me as such. Christianity, save a few rules that my ethnocentrism may permit me to declare performed by every civilised individual, is not a religion of law. On the contrary, one must render unto Caesar all that is Caesar's - in other words, follow the law of the land. Unlike Islam, Christianity has never been a model for political leadership, and Christian nations have been ruled in accordance with secular law, under God.

Islam and Judaism, on the other hand, are religions of law. As a Jew, it is not enough for me to declare myself agnostic and go about my irreligious day. How can I so openly flaunt the Sabbath if, as an agnostic, I acknowledge that maybe God does exist? Maybe God did reveal Himself to the souls of every unborn Jew, standing at the foothills of Mount Sinai? Maybe the Torah really is the magnum opus of this god? Maybe the Rabbis really are infused with cosmic fairydust, and all their sayings are the only truth?

If I were a true agnostic then I would have to acknowledge every one of these separate possibilities, and live my life accordingly. Should my doctor tell me that he thinks that I might have a particular disease and that if I do it will surely kill me, I will take the medication and forgo any minor side effects for the sake of prolonging my life. The side effects of observing the Sabbath are pretty minor, all things considered, so I would be a fool of an agnostic were I not to observe it! Ah, but who said that I was an agnostic?

No, as a Jew, this position is just as untenable as atheism and I propose a new word. I am an arevelarian. Arevelarianism is the belief that, while God may or may not exist, HE DID NOT WRITE A BOOK. No, and not only that! God never revealed Himself at Mount Sinai, never spoke to prophets, never endowed people with the ability to plug themselves into His unchanging essence - in short, never told me what to do. If you haven't guessed yet, arevelarianism is the belief that there was no revelation.

I may not believe that God either exists or does not exist, but I can put my foot down and believe with perfect faith in the non-existence of all the sort of patent nonsense that only the religiously initiated ever lull themselves into believing. If God did write a book, it probably would have been funnier.


At 3:58 AM , Blogger Daniel said...

Boy, you going straight to hell (regardless of whether you believe in it, or whether anyone else from your religion does). On the other hand, on the "render unto Caesar point", I happened to be reading Wikipedia on some rather interesting interpretations of the phrase as regards "tax resisters" and "tax protestors" (like many other things, a purely US phenomenon): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Render_unto_Caesar

At 10:31 PM , Anonymous jen said...

Interesting idea, I suppose my own agnosticism lies more in the realm of everything being a maybe, but that observing the rituals 'just in case' would be disrespectful. Taking medicine can't really be likened to following religious commandments, unless we're discussing the placebo effect!


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