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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of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe?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.


Richard Chess
What about God?

AN OFTEN REPEATED STORY of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism:

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracles would be accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”

And it was sufficient.

The final lines of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “The Jews”:

And what about God? Once we sang
“There is no God like ours.”
Now we sing “There is no God of ours.”
But we sing, we still sing.

Story and song. Story joins me to a past, what I’ll call my past. Song joins me to a community of singers, my voice one among many, sometimes in harmony, sometimes not, but always with the intention of creating out of many one, a beautiful, whether wistful or joyful, wholeness.

I experienced my opening to history when I lived in Israel—in Kiryat Shemonah, Safed and Jerusalem—from 1976 to 1979. Tour guides, tour books and history texts, educators and friends taught me what happened when and where, often while we were standing on the very stones or mountain top where significant events had occurred three, nine, thousands of years earlier. Of course, imagination was required to envision the historical or miraculous events unfolding there where I stood, feeling sun or wind, distracted by the backpack or sandal or accent of the others among whom I was claming or being claimed by my history. The felt sense that I, with my New Jersey suburb, my Reform bar mitzvah, my confused and confusing Jewish identity, could be located by starting at the beginning, say with Abraham, and following a long, often tragic route up to this very place in space and time, was, in a way, a kind of relief: I had discovered that I didn’t come from Nowhere, New Jersey, and that I didn’t need to invent myself out of nothing.

My connection to song—well, a certain kind of song, prayer—was made there, too. During the first few months of my stay, I, along with seventy other volunteers on the year-long program, lived in an immigrant absorption center in Kiryat Shemonah, close to the Lebanese border, where we studied Hebrew and were introduced to the cultures (including Yemenite, Moroccan, Iraqi—all Jews, and now all Israeli) of some of the people with whom we would be working once we were dispatched to our volunteer posts. I had traveled to Israel as a stranger among strangers to whom I had no past. Relieved of the burden of personal history, an identity that had developed and followed me around for twenty-two years, I was suddenly free to invent myself anew. In this eclectic group of American Jews, who presented themselves as everything from Orthodox to Zionist to pre-professional to macrobiotic to confused, I was free to become whatever kind of Jew (before this trip I was unaware of the range of authentic choices) I chose.

For our first Friday night in Kiryat Shemonah, a small, working class city, I enthusiastically and somewhat nervously accepted an invitation to join a group to attend a Friday night service—an Orthodox service. The service was held in a local school. Men, dressed in clean, white, short-sleeved, open-collar shirts, gathered in one classroom. Women, wearing simple, modest dresses, gathered in another. This was a much less formal affair than I was used to back home at my rather elegant Reform temple, where women were bejeweled and perfumed, men knotted to the Adam’s apple in conservative ties. Through the classroom windows, I could see the Hula Valley, famously drained by early pioneers to make it suitable for farming. At the far eastern edge of the valley were the Golan Mountains, just beyond which sits Syria. From there, my “adoptive” Israeli father would later tell me, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur 1973, he watched Syrian fighter jets streak toward him as he stood on his balcony. This night in July of 1976, as the day’s—the work week’s—light flared and diminished, the room filled with men’s voices. Laborers, I imagined, pioneers, I imagined, singing energetically, passionately, prayers whose words I could not translate, melodies I had not known before. As much as I could, I read along, I sang aloud. But even with my limited participation, I felt connected to these ancient Hebrew prayers, these modern Israeli Jews.


And what about God?


Story and song help me overcome a feeling of isolation and alienation from others. When I am shattered into many pieces—the educator piece, the administrator piece, the father piece, the husband piece, the consumer piece, the poet piece, the libido piece, the mind piece, the soul piece—each with its own needs, its own demands, story and song help me gain a little distance from these noisy, often competing pieces. And when, after reading and listening to news, I feel powerless, unable to ease suffering or adequately address injustice, story and song—Torah and prayer—help me renew my dedication to work toward justice and peace where I work and live. In Torah and prayer I am restored, for a moment, to wholeness.


And what about God?


These days it is hard to put much stock in a story that would like to assure us that when we are threatened by misfortune, God will intervene in history to save us. Even in the Baal Shem Tov’s time and place—he lived from 1700 to 1760 on a continent where Jews had already experienced centuries of intolerance and persecution—it must have been hard, though very tempting, to believe this. It’s not this theme that resonates with me, but another, the theme of the transmission of tradition—how honest the story is about the inevitability of loss and change. God knows we Jews have lost much and been changed, over the millennia, by our encounters with Hellenism, the Enlightenment, modernity and postmodernity, and how we have suffered and lost, suffered and endured countless acts of violence. The Baal Shem Tov’s story, however, is not a lament over what has been lost. Rather, it’s a story of what has persisted—the need to ask for help, the belief that there is someone to whom to address one’s petition for help. In the first generation, a miracle is accomplished and misfortune is averted. In the next, miracles are accomplished. In the third…well, all we are told is that the telling of the story was sufficient. Of course, we are to understand that it alone was sufficient to accomplish the miracle of averting a misfortune. But a stubborn reader such as myself, one who insists on reading only the words given, keeping in mind all that has happened since that story was told, then recorded, hears the story another way. Maybe the disaster did occur. What then? Do we stop believing in the power of prayer? Do we simply stop praying because it doesn’t work? Or does the story open to include us, members of that open-ended “third generation” who, living in the long shadow of misfortune, no longer believing in the immediate, discernible efficacy of prayer, hold our heads in our hands and pray anyway? Does the story suggest that it is the act of prayer itself that suffices, suffices to awaken hope in the face of fear and despair? Hope, as we know, can strengthen and motivate us to work, without waiting for divine intervention, toward preventing disaster, even when disaster seems inescapable.


And what about God?


There is no God like ours, I still sing as part of the regular worship service. I don’t know what my fellow worshippers actually think when they say these words. Easily distractible, especially at synagogue, I look around the sanctuary and think how different I am from those with whom I pray. Why can’t there be a congregation in Asheville whose members are all like me, with my cultural, political, spiritual, artistic, and social inclinations and aspirations? Sometimes, when I participate in communal prayers—the preferred way, in Judaism, to pray—I get the sense that I am praying, in the company of others, alone and in the presence of God. Or in the presence of God’s distance, if not absence. By this I mean I become awakened to the space and sacred objects and words and melodies and I sense that these together are directed toward God, wherever and whatever God is. Usually, however, I can’t imagine my way to feeling God’s presence, distant or near. On such mornings, though God as word, addressee, and character appears in virtually every prayer and passage of Torah read and discussed during services, I might as well be singing, “There is no God of ours.” Still, I—we—sing, and in this way at least, our voices joined, we overcome our mostly small, insignificant differences.


And what about God?


Can I tell you why I believe in God? Can I tell you who and what the God is in whom I may or may not believe?

I have a past. A long, complex, fascinating past. I call it mine, or it calls me a character in its story. I have a people, a living people, and my life is connected to, intertwined with, harmonized with theirs (though sometimes I’m singing sharp or flat). Or does this people choose me to be a member of its tribe? Torah comes from God, one could say, and prayer points back to God. Or one could say our story and song come with God. Maybe, in some distant future generation, even God—as creator, commander, inquisitor, judge, punisher, rescuer, adversary, comforter—will be forgotten. But the story will probably still be told, the song sung, the question asked, What about God?—and they will have to suffice.


Richard Chess directs the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His most recent book of poems is Third Temple (Tampa).

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