Secularizing God

It is by now a commonplace to point out that the secular Jewish movements of modern times – movements such as Zionism, or Bundism, or Territorialism – drew much of their inspiration from Jewish religious tradition. Everyone now knows that it is possible to take religious beliefs – such as the faith in the coming of the Messiah, or adherence to the Ten Commandments – and recast them in a secular form. But there is one religious belief that has always stubbornly resisted secularization. That belief is belief in God.
It is not as if people have not tried to secularize God. Starting perhaps with Spinoza, there has developed a well established philosophical tradition which seeks to equate God with the concept of “natural” or “scientific” law. The outstanding representative of this school of thought in modern times was undoubtedly Albert Einstein. Einstein argued in his writings on “cosmic religion” that there was an underlying order and coherence to the universe which he chose to identify with “God”. By striving to uncover this order and coherence through his scientific studies he felt that he was striving to understand “God”.
Einstein is still universally respected as a scientist but his philosophical beliefs have not had an enduring impact. In my view, the doctrine of God as “law” is not a truly secular doctrine. To the contrary, every “law” requires a legislator, and in this case there is no doubt as to who the legislator must be. It is the traditional God of the Jewish religion, the “Supreme Being” who created the universe and rules over it. It is possible to believe, as Einstein put it, that “God does not play dice with the universe”, but there is no inherent reason why this should be so. To the contrary, the God of the Jewish Scriptures is an arbitrary, willful individual who appears perfectly capable of interfering with the natural order of the universe at any time. To imagine this God as somehow bound by scientific laws of “His” own making is neither religion nor science but a dubious compromise between the two.
God is a myth of omnipotence. The appeal of this myth is obvious. The problem with secularizing this myth is precisely that it is a myth. It is not hard to redefine God as “Law”, or “Nothingness”, or “Mind”, but that is not what people are looking for in the concept of God. What they are looking for is omnipotence, and that is something which is very hard to find. Yet there is undoubtedly a power in the belief in omnipotence, a power which has manifested itself throughout history in the stubborn adherence of religious believers to their way of life and their traditions. The belief in the omnipotence of God has sustained the Jewish people throughout our history, despite the fact that this belief has been disproven time and time again in the most shocking and horrible way. Even the Holocaust has not destroyed this belief. That an omnipotent God would permit the wholesale slaughter of the Jewish people by the Nazis is entirely contrary to reason and common sense, yet a very considerable percentage of the Jewish people continues to believe in this omnipotent God all the same. Isn’t there some way to secularize this belief so as to retain its power while discarding its mythical features?
Probably the most influential secular reformulation of the belief in omnipotence that has emerged in modern times is Marxism. As is well known, Marx did not believe in God, but he did succeed in concocting a doctrine that promised inevitable victory to his followers. His views were sufficiently convincing to inspire large numbers of people to fight and die on their behalf. For a time, the triumph of Communism in the Soviet Union, China and a number of other countries made it appear that Marx was right. Today, Marxism still remains a significant force in some parts of the world, but it has lost its aura of invincibility. It has become apparent that Marx merely substituted one myth for another. The collapse of Marxism as a secular religion shows that the path to the secularization of God is not to be found in the invention of new and better myths. The myth of omnipotence must be exposed as a myth, and yet its power somehow preserved in a non-mythical form.
I believe that the first step in this direction is to remember why God is called G-d by Orthodox Jews. This usage is derived from the Jewish tradition according to which the holy Name of God, which in Hebrew is represented by the letters yod, hey, vav, hey, is not to be pronounced as a word. In English these letters are commonly represented as YHVH. The true meaning of these four letters has been almost completely obscured in modern times by the popularization of the expression, “Yahweh”. This expression was invented by German Protestant “Biblical scholars” as an alleged improvement over the previous Protestant practice of pronouncing the letters YHVH as “Jehovah”. The term “Yahweh” is now commonly used by almost all “Biblical scholars”, including most Jewish ones, to refer to the God of the Jewish Scriptures.
Despite its wide acceptance in scholarly circles, there is little or no evidence that the letters YHVH were ever understood to mean “Yahweh” by any Jew anywhere prior to modern times. It is true that a word resembling “Yahweh” is found in two or three ancient Greek manuscripts emanating from Gnostic circles, but the Gnostics were bitterly hostile to Judaism and most likely used this term in a sarcastic way. The “Biblical scholars” imagine that the Jews were afraid to say “Yahweh” because of some superstitious taboo, but that is because they simply don’t understand the true meaning of the expression YHVH. There is no reason to believe that these letters were ever supposed to be pronounced as a word. To the contrary, there exists an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest that the letters YHVH were intended to merely symbolize the actual holy Name, which consisted of the Hebrew sentence, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”, meaning “I will be what I will be” or “I am what I am”.
This sentence is the answer which God gives to Moses in the Torah when Moses asks God to tell him “His” name. YHVH is an appropriate symbol for “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” because most forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” utilize these same letters. Numerous Jewish writers over the centuries have recognized the connection between YHVH, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” and the Hebrew verb “to be” and commented on it in one way or another. The Kabbalists in particular stressed this connection, which provides the point of departure for several lengthy passages in the Zohar. And of course, once the connection between YHVH and “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” is recognized, then the ban on pronouncing the holy Name out loud is easy to understand. For one thing it would be somewhat cumbersome to say “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” every time YHVH appears; but more significantly, it is impossible to say “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” as the name of God without thereby assuming the identity of God. There is every reason to believe that the prohibition against pronouncing the holy Name out loud was precisely a prohibition against assuming the identity of God.
This conclusion is reinforced by the various incidents in the Torah in which God becomes incensed when “He” feels that human beings are trying to usurp “His” role. Yet at the same time, the use of the term “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” as God’s holy Name constitutes a standing invitation to identify with God. According to Jewish tradition, in the days when the Temple still stood, the High Priest was required to speak the holy Name out loud once a year in the inner sanctum of the Temple on Yom Kippur. If there was something wrong with his performance of this ritual, it was thought that he would drop dead on the spot. This tradition symbolizes the ambivalent attitude of the Jewish religion towards identifying with God – it is something that is simultaneously forbidden and encouraged at one and the same time. Numerous examples could be cited from Jewish mystical and Kabbalist writings of this same ambivalent attitude.
Somwhere at the heart of this entire tradition are the words, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”. I don’t know what the ancient Hebrews meant by this phrase but I know what the words mean to me. They imply that there is a power in the ability to experience reality directly without preconceptions. This power is not omnipotent but it is a power all the same. This same thought is central to a number of religious traditions, most notably Zen Buddhism and also Taoism and Sufism. This power derives, or is thought to derive, from the capacity of the silent mind to intuitively grasp reality in a way that the verbal mind cannot. Religious believers may choose to relate this intuitive grasp of reality to their notion of the “mind of God”, but there is no inherent reason why the word, “God”, has to be brought into the picture at all. To the contrary, God is also a preconception, and therefore an obstacle to the direct, unmediated grasp of reality.
In my view, reality is another word for the entire universe, which is infinite both in time and space. Like the universe itself, reality just is: it cannot be explained or understood, because all explanations imply a frame of reference larger than that which is being explained. There is no frame of reference larger than the universe itself. But even though it cannot be explained or understood, the universe can be sensed. Through the direct, unmediated grasp of reality, it is perhaps possible to improve our capacity to deal effectively with the problems of life. I cannot prove this to be true, but I believe that it is. I also believe that a similar faith is reflected in many religious traditions, particularly those labeled “mystical” or “pantheistic”. However, I am neither a mystic nor a pantheist. I do not believe in the existence of any entity larger than or different from the universe itself, nor do I believe that the universe wants or needs me to worship it. I’m not even sure that the universe cares whether or not I exist. I do care, however, and it seems to me that I will be better able to exist if I pay close attention to what the universe is doing at any given moment. This may not be the same thing as trying to understand the will of God, but it is not so different either..