We Orthodox Jews are a strange people. We believe in a God whose existence we cannot prove. We believe in a God we cannot see, nor have we ever heard. We live by laws that cannot be tested in a laboratory.
Too many Jews, even after yeshiva day-school education, are no longer religious, others not seriously Orthodox. Apparently, many feel that there is little to be gained by living, what they perceive as, a rigorous Orthodox lifestyle. One can be a good person without being Orthodox. After all, just look at all the people surrounding us who appear to be ethical, nice, happy and good.
Why does religion matter? What difference does it make? More than people losing faith in God, they simply do not see why it is important. Furthermore, modern science hasn’t proven there is a God. Modern science seems to explain how the universe began, how evolution progressed until today, 15 billion years later, here we are.
According to science we are nothing, our planet is insignificant, our existence a mere speck in time. Science teaches we are a mere concatenation of chemicals, cosmic dust on the surface of infinity, living out lives in a blind and purposeless universe that came into being for no reason.
But science and religion are different. Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science is about how we are here. Judaism is about why we are here. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science sees objects. Religion speaks to us as humans.
Without a belief in God, why should I be good? Why should I be moral? Why should I be concerned about the welfare of others? In a world where God is believed to exist, the primary fact is relationship—with others, with community, with the stranger. In a world without God, the primary person is “I,” “me.”
Religion answers the three great questions: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?
We need scientific explanation to understand nature. We need meaning to understand human behavior and culture. Meaning is what humans seek because they are not simply part of nature. We are more than a step higher than the ape and share genes with the worm.
Religion gives life a connectedness to others, a sense of purpose. Religion works whether you believe in it or not. Love, trust, family, community, giving and helping others, forgiveness, gratitude, prayer; these things work whether you believe in them or not. The Jewish way is first to live religiously and obey God, then to ask questions about Him.
Without religion, the dignity and the worth of man suffers. Human life will not be important to some. Abortion, euthanasia, slavery, selfishness would be accepted by many. We would no longer share a common morality. Marriage no longer consecrated will crumble and children will suffer. Loyalty and the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others is diminished.
Without religion, marriage as a commitment, a loyalty at the deepest level between two people, becomes harder to sustain. So, fewer people marry, more marriages end in divorce, fewer people, especially fathers, maintain a close connection with their children.
So the presence or absence of God makes an immense difference to our lives.
Rebbe Wolfe of Zhitomir would say, “For the believer, there is no question; for the non-believer, there is no answer.”
Judaism is a religion of hope, a religion of redemption, that insists one day mankind will be free, that oppression and violence will end. Judaism is restless. There is nothing peaceful about hope. Far simpler to believe nothing, expect nothing, reconcile oneself to the meaninglessness of a universe endlessly revolving in silence around a void, and therefore each person decides for himself how to live, often what’s good for the self. Hence a society without God has more divorce, alcoholism, mental illness, depression, violence and unethical behavior. It’s far harder to strive for justice against oppression, freedom against tyranny and the creation of communities and organizations of caring.
Reb Mendel of Rimanov once came across a child who was crying because he was playing hide-n-seek, but after he had hidden, none of his playmates tried to find him. Reb Mendel said, “How great is the Divine pain! God has concealed Himself in His works, but no one looks for Him.” The absolute truth is that God created the universe and His presence is evident in every bit of His creation.
“I am the Lord Who brought you up out of Egypt,” (Tehillim 81:11). Why, asks Rav Kook, does the verse say “brought up” and not “took out” of Egypt, as it usually does? Because God brought us up, He elevated us to a higher moral way of living. Don’t we want to live an elevated life?
When I was working in Monsey, I knew a chasid. One Friday, on dress-down casual day in the business world, I asked him why he continued to wear his long black coat and white shirt as he did every day. He said, “I am a prince, and this is how a prince dresses.”
There either is or is not a Creator of the universe, who brought life, and you, into being. You have to make a choice and it will affect the whole of your life.
By Martin Polack
Martin Polack is a business analyst and is involved in adult Jewish education.