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Essay

Why Believe in God?

Over the past few years, the Image staff contemplated assembling a symposium based on this simple problem. But we hesitated. Should we pose such a disarmingly straightforward question to artists and writers, who tend to shun the explicit and the rational? Or were we hesitating because the question itself made us uncomfortable?

Then, over the past year, a handful of manifestoes appeared criticizing religion as a corrupting social force, as vengeful, nonsensical wish-fulfillment, as closing people’s minds to science and leading to war and environmental destruction. Christopher Hitchens and the “New Atheists” have much to lay at the door of the faith traditions of the west. Hitchens calls religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

And so we were spurred into action in spite of ourselves. We put it to a group of writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians: At a time in human history when, at least in the worlds of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe? Our goal has been neither to publish rebuttals to Hitchens et al. nor to host a debate, but instead to seek out brief meditations from the artists and writers who make up our extended community. Their responses are collected here.

 

Ben Birnbaum
Jerusalem Manor

 

God did not create religion; he created the world.
—————————————Franz Rosenzweig

I WALKED IN on my mother once during her crisis of faith. She was lounging in my father’s recliner in what we called “the front room.” It was a room generally reserved for television and for special company. Here on Sunday evenings we watched Davy Crockett and then the Jackie Gleason Show. And my father, gazing between his stockinged feet at the June Taylor Dancers arrayed on their backs on the stage floor like a dozen long flower petals, their heads making one blonde and brunette pistil, their bare legs swishing like synchronized wiper blades—my father breathed, “Amazing. Can you believe that?” Here we saw visitors to our house who required a more respectful—or distancing—welcome than was afforded by a place on our old living-room sofa: salesmen, contractors, teachers on home visits, our shul’s rabbi, people my father did business with, and the bearded solicitors of charity for orphans, rabbinical seminaries, and girls without dowries in America and “Palestine” (though it had been a state called Israel for more than a decade). And here, too, though not to my father’s pleasure, we received Mr. Friedman, a neighborhood madman who made visits unannounced on lazy Sabbath afternoons, who wore eyeglasses with lenses so thick that his eyeballs bulged and deflated as he turned his head, and whose waxen shins gleamed between his fallen silk socks and the cuffs of his trousers as he worked his way through bowls of grapes and plates of cookies and mused on Uriel Acosta—the seventeenth-century heretic from rabbinic Judaism who, trumping Spinoza, was twice excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam and who, after offering a final apology to his coreligionists, shot himself in the head. It was Mr. Friedman’s belief that he harbored Acosta’s transmigrated soul, and nobody held that nuttiness against him because first of all, it could have been true, and second, he’d been a brilliant medical student until an anti-Semitic professor scheduled an exam for the Sabbath, and Mr. Friedman would not write on the Sabbath and was dismissed from medical school and suffered his breakdown. Such was the story.

I didn’t expect to see my mother in my father’s chair when I walked into the front room, but there she was, as relaxed as though it were her chair, gazing out the window at our street, which was lined, like many of the streets in our Brooklyn neighborhood, with mature London plane trees, which had been an inexplicable favorite of the city’s Depression-era parks department. “Did you know,” my mother said to me, “that leaves have tiny holes on the bottom for drinking water?” I did know, as it happened, but the question was clearly an introduction. “And when it’s about to rain,” she continued, “they know it and they turn themselves over. How can anybody believe there is no God?”

The oldest of the six children my mother bore before she was thirty-five, I was by this time, at age twelve or so, her household confidante and keenly attuned to the flailings of her wounded and childish heart. And while abysmally educated in many ways, I was well schooled theologically, already on the road to what everyone in the neighborhood predicted would be an important life as a rabbinical scholar—“a sage of our generation,” God willing. And so I understood that my mother no longer believed in God, and that she would never again believe: not in the revelation at Sinai or the laws that preserved the sanctity of the Sabbath or kashrus or fasting or prayer or those that kept her faithful to my father and to her children and to the community of Orthodox Jews at the far end of Brooklyn to which we belonged utterly. I felt terrified, hollowed out—as though I had caught a glimpse of a bomb a moment before it exploded, casting everything I knew into orbits I could not then imagine.

Forty or so years later, my mother was visiting me and my sister and our families in Boston, where I worked as a writer, editor, and senior administrative advisor at Boston College, a significant Jesuit university, and my sister was a public-school teacher married to a tender and smart Methodist-raised engineer. Of the other four children, one brother was a policeman in California, divorced from his first wife and living with a divorcée and her children, while three brothers lived as Orthodox Jews in Israel, as did my father, with his second wife, a tractable and pleasant woman, by all accounts, and with whom he’d had a large second family. And there was a seventh child, our youngest brother, who was half a dozen years from being born on the day I walked in on my mother in the front room. He was now a postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology in Colorado, and carrying the surname of a man—another tender and smart Methodist—with whom my mother had an affair while still married to my father. My mother married her lover a few years later (after his wife died). They moved to his summer home, fifteen acres of homespun in the woods of Vermont, where she developed an unreliable local accent, a gardening habit, and a patrician bearing much admired in town. Then the tender and smart husband took sick and was sick a very long and hard time and died.

It was not long after his death, while on that visit to Boston, that my mother took a walk with my sister and set her foot wrong and fell over onto someone’s lawn and broke a hip. Following emergency surgery, she began a program of physical therapy in a nursing home that my sister had located equidistant from our two homes and close to my university. It was a place with a decent reputation and a dining room that smelled agreeably of thorough cooking and that looked, also agreeably, as though it had been air-lifted, chandelier and papered walls and burnished sconces, from a Borscht-Belt resort with pretensions to upper-class elegance­—the kind of place that in 1955 would have called itself something like Jerusalem Manor. But it was not a happy place for my mother, given that the staff were not careful or generous or well trained or, in many cases, English-speaking, that the cries and honks of the demented sounded day and night, and that the place was for most of its residents a life sentence: a catered, sedated, chandelier-lit, linens-supplied journey to the tomb.

With the help of her friends in Vermont, we began to plan my mother’s transfer to a rehabilitation center near her home, but her surgeon didn’t want her traveling yet, and in any case no vacancy would become available in Vermont for three weeks. I visited her often at Jerusalem Manor, sometimes bringing one of my children, and a few times my wife (it was charity on her part, for my mother had developed a bad habit of being slyly unkind to her). But mostly I went alone, usually on my lunch hour and then again on the way home from work, to sit by my mother’s bed and discourse on such subjects as the number of steps she’d been able to take that morning and how tired but good she’d felt afterward, and how the nice young physical therapist and his wife were expecting their first baby and were so nervous about being parents, and my mother was able to say: “Don’t worry; no parent can be perfect. It’ll be fine, believe me. If you only knew my story.” (And then she probably told the young man whatever version of her story it pleased her to tell that day.)

We talked as well about my children and my sister’s children, and about my mother’s friends in Vermont—the members of her Unitarian church and her choirs and political action groups. We talked about my distant brothers in Israel and their children (only a few of whom I’d met, and many of whom my mother was only allowed to see if she disguised herself as a Torah-observant bubbeh in a kerchief, long skirt, and long-sleeved blouse). We even talked about Mr. Friedman, who many years earlier was stabbed to death one night in a graveyard in Brooklyn where he believed he was standing at the tomb of Uriel Acosta’s lost fiancée (the wedding was called off by the young woman’s family). “Did you know he was in love with me?” my mother asked. “Everyone knew,” I said. My mother was stunningly beautiful once. When she was seventeen, the story is told, during the Great Depression, a neighborhood doctor, a man of middle-age, came to her parents and offered money in return for my mother as his bride. My grandparents were willing—there were two younger daughters to feed, clothe, and educate—but my mother refused. Instead she soon took up with my father, whom her parents did not like and whom she did not like—and for sound reasons, each of them. “It used to really bother your father when Mr. Friedman would show up,” my mother said. And it would please you then and still does, I thought but did not say. And of course we talked about the way you trip on a piece of broken sidewalk and your life changes, bang, like that. Occasionally my mother tried to coax me into saying what I thought about the course of our entwined half-century of life. But it had been a long time since I trusted her. She probed: “Do you remember when…?”

One day, telling me about the panic that sometimes seized her when she woke in her room during the night, she asked what I did when I felt afraid. After some hesitation, I told her that for such occasions I kept an old Soncino edition of the Psalms close at hand. Ah, she sighed. The Soncino edition of the Psalms was familiar to both of us from old Brooklyn, where the Soncino Press’s English translations—whether of scripture, Mishnah, or Talmud—were among the few accepted as legitimate by the rabbis to whose severe views we attended. And they were lovely books. The Soncino Babylonian Talmud, published in thirty hardcover maroon volumes, was printed on a tough semitransparent paper that endowed the pages with the same kind of runic beauty one found in a Talmudic line of argument about the various settlements owed if one man’s ram impregnated another man’s ewe after breaking through a fence that had been damaged by a third party. (Was he aware that he’d done the damage, or was he not? Did the owner intend to breed the ewe or butcher it?) The volume of psalms itself was girded in a dust cover the color of sun-bleached yellow brick, and the type was arranged on the pages according to a severe and perfectly realized geometry: the Hebrew making up a dense column on the right, with the English translation in a crisper font (English is a profligate tongue) on the left, and both supported below by a dense, wide plinth of scholarly notes. And while my mother and I would have read the Hebrew when we read, the English was also satisfying, the work of an opaque American group known as the Jewish Publication Society, whose members had here joined rabbinic pedantry with King James flourish and made it seem a viable marriage.

My mother said that she, too, still found psalms comforting to read. “It’s silly, but what can you do?” she said, laughing at herself, a woman from Vermont, with an Irish surname, real oil paintings on her walls, commitments to Central American villages and nature preserves, and a role in the First Unitarian Church’s Christmas pageant. I laughed as well. What, indeed, could you do? On this matter, my mother and I were agreed.

The next day, I went to a bookstore that served Boston’s Orthodox Jewish community and bought a copy of the Soncino Psalms. I mean copy two ways, in that it was a copy of the book, yes, but also a facsimile—no longer draped in a jacket the color of desert, and no longer pressed, but photocopied from the original printed pages. Still, words serve, and my mother was happy with the gift I brought, and she wanted to talk more about what those sticky verses meant to me and to her, in old times and now. I wasn’t inclined to talk, but I had made her happy.

I don’t need to be instructed by anyone as to the appalling outgrowths of religious belief, whether in holy writ, history, today’s Times, or in the hotel room in which my mother disguised herself so as to be fit to be seen by her grandchildren. The world’s a broken place. (It cracked at the moment God withdrew himself in order to give creation room to be, say the kabbalists.) And it remains broken in spite of religion, in spite of atheism, in spite of bourbon, penicillin, King Lear, and everything else we’ve fashioned to bind it whole again.

“In the beginning God created,” said Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), the great dark light of the Hasidic movement in its decline. “From that point onwards, it was up to man to build himself and his world.”

Unlike some faith systems—socialism, Las Vegas, and Andrew Weil, MD, come to mind—religious faith (at least the faiths I know something about, which are Judaism and Christianity) expect of us that we will continue to fashion, bind, and build with (not despite) the certain knowledge that the work will not be completed, cannot be completed—not here and not by the likes of you and me.

“There is abundant hope, but there is none for us,” Kafka put it, and I tend to believe that the Catholic existentialist theologian Gabriel Marcel, who drank from the other end of the same rotten century as did Kafka, meant the sane thing when he said that hope is not a denial of the facts of life but an expression of them. Yet another remarkable sage is reported to have instructed: “The day is short, the task is great,” and then concluded: “While you are not required to complete [the work], neither are you free to desist from it.” He was Rav Tarfon, and he lived around the turn of the second century (not a terrific hundred years either), and if I had become the rabbi I was once meant to be, I would have stood at the front of the study hall and looked out at my students and glossed his oft-cited contribution to Ethics of the Fathers this way: What Rav Tarfon tells us is that we are blessed to be in a world in which we are free to work continually on becoming free. Now pick up your books and continue studying.

Once upon a time, I was certain that civil life was unsustainable without religion as its foundation. Then I was certain that civil life was unsustainable on a foundation of religion. I also used to be certain about God—even feeling his presence once in a high meadow behind a hotel to which my parents had brought us for a few weeks of country summer. I was six years old, and I told no one. And I’ve been certain about no-God, too, and told no one as well, until one day I had to speak, because I was a student in a rabbinical seminary, and I had to get away before my cracked self came apart. The rabbi to whom I confessed was one of the deans, a Shoah refugee, a short, bearded, broad-shouldered, and homely man in a black frock coat (he resembled Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, I would discover when I discovered Toulouse-Lautrec). He absorbed the news that I was an atheist, and he nodded and said, “But you still pray three times a day, right?”

 

Ben Birnbaum is an acclaimed essayist and editor of Boston College Magazine and of the anthology Take Heart: Catholic Writers on Hope in Our Time (Crossroad).

 


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