About a year into the Covid pandemic, with deaths at more than a half million in the United States, Rabbi Richard Address asked a study group whether the effects of the disease, the widespread suffering and premature death of so many people, had “shaken our faith.”
This is one of the oldest of religious questions, so old that Job asked it of God himself: What did my children do to deserve their early death? And God’s answer was: I DON’T ANSWER TO YOU.
In theological terms, it is called the theodicy problem. If God is the decider of our lives and deaths, if God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent, if God is a “righteous judge” who selects when we die on the basis of perfect knowledge of our deeds and fair application of his laws…if all this is true, then why do tens of millions of innocents die for no apparent reason? Why do they die in plagues and natural disasters? Why do they die in mass murders and genocides? Or in four-inch-deep baby wading pools?
Theologians over the centuries have tied themselves into merit-badge-worthy knots and have invented whole schools of thought (e.g., post-Holocaust theology) and played fast and loose with basic concepts of good and evil (the “unknown good”) … just to answer this question. But philosophers have looked at the same question and reached a rather different conclusion: Whatever you may think God is or does, he/she obviously does not intervene in human affairs and is clearly indifferent to our pain, suffering and loss.
Although this position seems atheistic, it really denies the existence only of a supernatural God. If, in contrast, we take the position that God is a shorthand name for the collective laws of nature that account for every event in the universe (as Maimonides suggests in The Guide for the Perplexed and Spinoza states explicitly in his Ethics), then the theodicy problem, the problem of evil, simply disappears.
And, further, the need for faith also disappears. The natural God is evident everywhere, in the smallest of atomic particles and in the mechanics of the expanding universe. Every time a pancreatic cell sends out a signal for more insulin and every time a star burns out and flames into a supernova, the same system of laws is at work and available to study. We cannot swallow without gravity. We cannot think without electromagnetism. No faith in the unknowable is required.
Moreover, these laws are not invisible to us—even though, sometimes, hard to see. The study and contemplation of God consists in each generation’s further exploration of what exists and how things behave and, by successive approximation, we get ever closer to the insight we seek.
Faith, in contrast, is a way of reaching conclusions without evidence–or even when there is evidence to the contrary of our beliefs. For example, some people believe (have faith) that God takes side in wars. (No such evidence.) Others believe (have faith) that our world is less than 10,000 years old, when there are billions of facts that establish it to be closer to four billion years old.
Of course, some beliefs based on faith are harmless — like the belief that you have a lucky tie (you don’t). And some have a sweet charm; I knew a woman who believed that every time she found a coin on the ground it was a hello-message from her mother in heaven. (Only an insensitive monster would challenge her claim.)
In science and philosophy, the things we accept on faith are called assumptions. For instance, I assume that the universe exists and is not an illusion. (You’d be amazed to know how many very bright people think the universe is probably a computer simulation.) I also assume that other human beings have feelings—although it’s impossible to know for sure.
But many items of faith are not only baseless but evil. Notably, there is no evidence or justification whatsoever to believe that there is an afterlife of any kind, especially one that rewards the good and punishes the evil. One of the ways that religions keep power over people is to invent something (like eternal suffering) that frightens them, and then to promise that fidelity and obedience will spare them from it. As far back as Epicurus, philosophers have argued that living one’s life according to superstitions that would get them into paradise (protecting their non-existent immortal souls) effectively prevents people from living a full and engaged life.
But is it possible to be a Jew, to practice the Jewish religion without faith in an unprovable supernatural?
I am quite sure it is. First, my own Judaism is based on the endless exploration of the Jewish texts — which are even more interesting when we understand that they are all of human provenance. This exploration entails an endlessly rewarding conversation with Jews, living and dead, about the meaning of our experience.
Second, my Judaism is also deeply engaged in studying and supporting the realest of realities: the burgeoning State of Israel. No, of course God didn’t give this land to the Jews. But they have made it theirs, a homeland, a center of advanced learning: especially science, medicine and engineering, forms of study where one is more likely to find God than in the Shulchan Aruch. I know that I must do all I can to protect Israel from the three forms of antisemitism extant in the world today: the dishonesty of the extreme left, the barbarity of the extreme right, and murderousness of its Arab and Persian enemies.
And third, my Judaism requires me to remain ever alert to the words and deeds of those zealous Christians who would like to turn America into a Christian theocracy, pillaging the Age of Enlightenment model it was meant to follow.
Thus, my faith has little to do with the COVID plague. In fact, the only way I think that faith might relate to the pandemic problem would be if we convinced the coronavirus that, should it persist in attacking humans, we’ll condemn it to eternal torture and suffering. That might scare it off.
Dr. Weiss is a writer, lecturer and retired professor, who received his rabbinical ordination in 2018 at the age of 75. He develops courses, workshops, and seminars for adult Jewish education. You can email him at EdmondWeiss@comcast.net.