A couple of days ago, I wrote a post responding to Yoram Hazony’s article at the Stone. In response, Corey Robin sent me the following comments by email:
I was thinking about yours and Norman Geras’s post about Yoram Hazony. I don’t think there’s any question that you’re both right about what the implications of Hazony’s argument are for a structure of moral obligation. (Or for the atheist, for that matter, who wants some proof of God’s existence.) I wonder though if that question doesn’t matter for Jewish people because Jewish ethics are not really predicated upon there being a God so much as there being a set of rituals and practices that, a la Aristotle, inculcate in you a sense of ethical goodness. (Not quite virtue, but something like that.) Hazony’s God — and I think it’s quite descriptive of how a great many Jews think about God — is not meant to structure obligation or duty. Our God is meant to do something else: to provide an opportunity for wonder (at the awesomeness of God’s inscrutability), gratitude (that we exist), and hope in transformation (I will be what I will be). Not just hope in transformation, but hope in God’s existence, that something so inscrutable and impossible — and all that it heralds in the Messianic — might in fact be. It’s a frame, a lodestone, more than anything else. Now of course you and Geras could reply that anything could do that — a mathematical proof, a Beethoven string quartet, the Rocky Mountains — and that’s probably true (though I don’t know if one thing can do all of those things at the same time.) But I’m not sure that anything could do that for a collective, which is the other part of Judaism: we’re a collective, not an individualist, religion. Getting everyone together once a week (and if you’re more observant, every day), setting time aside for Shabbat, etc. — all that might not be possible without that particular lodestone of God to attract the fillings.
This is an interesting set of observations. I have some disparate responses to make.
First, as Corey himself concedes, this role could be played by many entities. The mountains do that for many people, and the experience is rich and varied enough to induce talk of ‘spiritual transformation’ by them. (My time in the mountains is certainly the closest I’ve come to a spiritual experience.) It seems to me too, that one thing could induce all the experiences referred to above: mountains amaze, awe and frighten me, they make me grateful that I was born so I could have experienced them, and they have always promised me the hope for transformation. (As I note in this post on this blog some time back.) Indeed, I think the universe itself, with its mysterious expanse and temporal duration does this for many people. And again, it isn’t clear to me why this might only work for individuals and not for collectives. There are many examples of mass group followings of non-divine, non-spiritual entities (cults of all kinds for instance; dunno, Gaia?); individuals can communicate their experiences and shared feelings and come together under their banner to form collectives. If Corey is suggesting that the effect on collectives comes about only because of the peculiarly inaccessible or ineffable attributes of this entity, then it seems to me that somehow the standard theist notion of a God is being invoked, one whose expanse is unlimited, whose powers lie beyond our imagination or comprehension, his goodness unlimited. That is, while the suggestion is being made that the ‘God’ in question needn’t serve as a source of moral obligation, to have the particular relationships to it that Corey specifies, while also stressing its mysterious or inaccessible nature, is, I think, to draw upon the theist conception again.
More importantly though, I wonder why the term ‘God’ is being or should be used here. To ask this question is to engage in a losing battle, of course, because the term has often become hopelessly overloaded in debates about the existence of ‘God’. Hazony’s ‘God’ is a powerful, mysterious entity, one we only dimly understand, but whose rough contours are enough to induce in us the feelings Corey describes above. But why use the term ‘God’ to refer to this entity? In terms of antecedent theological usage, ‘God’ is generally used to refer to something far more expansive, more immanent. If it’s an imperfect entity we have in mind, why not come up with a new term?
I’m musing aloud here, so no permanent position taken. But it’s something I’ve wondered about myself a lot, and Hazony’s account of God tracks my own often inarticulate thoughts on this all. Of course, he and I are coming from a different position from the atheist: we’re trying to make sense of what we do (he much more than I). It might be that the way he articulates what we do is the best we can come up with to make sense of the rituals, the holidays, etc. It’s not a knock-down argument against the atheist who says why? Or even the child who asks why too. It’s a way of making sense of the person who operates under the assumption, Why not?
I agree with this, but again, I wonder why we should not just retire the term ‘God’, one that is weighed down with so much baggage: creator, guarantor of the moral order, and so on. The qualities of the entity that Corey has in mind could be found in much else. Indeed, as I suggest above, knowledge of the seemingly infinite expanses of space, our being ‘made of stars’, the mysteries of time could do all of this, and we don’t need to use an overloaded term to describe them.
I’ve never felt like a child of the universe more than the time when my father explained to me just how far away the stars were from me and from each other, and how when I looked at them, I was seeing the past. That was magic. When I see the sun, it awes me to think it has borne witness to all of human history and much more before. These experiences are as close as I can get to spiritual ones. It doesn’t seem to me that I need to borrow the term ‘God’ to describe these objects of my reverence.