I believe in God because the Jews terrify me.
The atheistic explanation of religious belief — that it is cosmic wish-fulfillment and an opiate of the masses — cannot be applied to יאַרמלקע-rocking people. They did not follow the dictates of their God because they were promised everlasting bliss for doing so. They did not live a religious life because they would be rewarded for it after death. In fact, the early Jews didn’t even believe in Heaven. They believed in Sheol, “a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from God.”
If this seems mere trifle, allow me to probe the implications of this fact: The Jews agreed to give up the pleasures of fornication, drunkenness, cheating, laziness, idol-worship, and all the rest, and to spend their lives in prayer, fasting, and strict obedience to hierarchy, all without an eternal reward. If you’ve ever ventured into the depths of the book of Deuteronomy, with its seemingly endless list of nitpicking laws, you know how fantastic this actually is. The Jew stands in fervent contradiction to the idea that religion was invented to make us feel good, to allow us to forget all our fears and tragedies by looking to everlasting bliss.
So, thanks to the circumcised, my initial doubt that religious belief is wish-fulfillment is weakened. But — my opponent might argue — even if the Jews did not believe that they would be rewarded in Heaven, they certainly believed that God would be with them, help them, and fight for them on Earth. Surely then, their religion is still a form of wish-fulfillment?
And my answer can only be: Yes. Yes, and that’s the absolutely terrifying part about the Jews. Their relationship with God is not based on abstractions, it is based on a pact — a tangible, visible, and earthly pact. The covenant is offered by God himself: “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.” He will help the Jewish nation and work his plan of salvation through them, and they will be faithful to him.
I, being a modern human being, don’t want this. I want to be told that God’s relationship with me comes in the abstract form of love and peace. God is He Who Operates on the Level of My Soul — and thus he remains unquestionable to the atheist. For how can you question what goes on in my soul?
But the Jews didn’t have the luxury of compartmentalizing their God to spiritual matters. God was the God who parted the Red Sea for them, who won their battles, who descended as a pillar of fire and of cloud, who spoke to Moses in the burning bush and who fed them manna from Heaven. In short, their pact with God was entirely testable, manifesting itself as it did by intensely personal interaction of the Divine into the life of his people. God promised them he would help them survive as a nation, and the Jews — despite being small, weak, and detested — survived as a nation.
This does not prove the existence of God. All of those interactions could have been made up, the Jews may have survived by mere chance, and the Jew on a bench in New York City today might be no more than an accident of history. But it does lay to waste the idea that the belief in God originates from untestable hypotheses. The Ancient Greeks could say that Helios draws the sun across the sky in his chariot, a claim no one (then) could really argue with. The claims of all ancient religions are similar, and even some of the modern ones, as when the Christian says, “I know God exists because I feel his presence.”
But the Jew claims that on an exact date, at an exact place (which we moderns know exists), when so-and-so was ruler (who we know lived and indeed ruled), God rained down 10 plagues upon the slave-master Egyptians, and the Jews were freed (as we know they were.) The existence of God rests on the tangible pact between them, the promise that he will fight for him. Is it wish fulfillment? Yes, but in the shocking sense that their wishes are tangibly fulfilled.
Thus it is left to us, having been terrified by their claims, to decide what to do with the Jews. As Walker Percy says, “The Jews are both a sign and a stumbling block. That is why they are hated by theorists like Hitler (fascism/racism) and Stalin (fascism/communism). The Jews cannot be gotten around.”
They are living, breathing evidence that belief in God that did not originate from the promise of eternal reward, that it is nothing like an opiate, and that continued belief was validated — not by abstracts — but by concrete events, recorded in history. The idea that these events (The Parting of the Red Sea, the Water From the Rock, etc.) could not possibly have happened is silly. Anyone claiming that is going to get trounced in a debate, for his argument — if he is a good scientist — will end up as this: “In normal human experience, the abnormal event of a Voice issuing from a burning bush is not likely.” No, it is most certainly possible that they happened.
And when I look on the face of a Jew, living and worshipping God today, I believe they did.
Thanks for reading! I wanted to take a moment and apologize for the tone of my previous two blog posts, which weren’t charitable in the least. Mea culpa, mea culpa, and I promise to do better.