Joshua O. Haberman. New York and Toronto: The Free Press, 1994. 264 Pages. $24.95, cloth.
Judaism, it has been said, is a religion of deed and not creed. A rabbi may have no difficulty explaining the history of a practice and can easily refer an inquirer to commentators who expound upon the matter. But when the issue of Jewish belief is raised, especially concerning the Almighty, the answers come less readily and less dogmatically. In Jewish history, theology has always taken second place to orthopraxy. We are strongly commanded to believe that there is only one God. But what exactly we are to believe about this one God has always remained a bit of a mystery.
In The God I Believe In, Rabbi Joshua Haberman interviews fourteen prominent Jewish people, raising many of the questions that all too often remain unasked in the Jewish community. Haberman’s book is the result of his individual conversations with each person over the course of the past several years. This varied group includes:
three eminent scientists, two acclaimed novelists, two philosophers, the only American-born Hasidic leader, Soviet Jewry’s most famous resistance hero, a university president, a convert, a leading theologian, the editor-in-chief of an influential magazine, and the world’s best-known talmudist.(p. 4)
Haberman himself was born in Vienna and served as a rabbi for more than fifty years in the United States. This book, he explains, is part of the continuing process of his own understanding about God. It is not intended to set forth official Jewish doctrines of faith but rather to offer a glimpse into the personal beliefs of a variety of influential Jewish intellectuals. The main topics of discussion include Scripture, the chosenness of the Jewish people, the Messiah, and the afterlife.
These fourteen conversations give insight into the question, What do Jewish people today actually believe about God?” All of those interviewed were quick to assert their commitment to their own Jewish identity. In one way or another, they all acknowledged a basic belief in God. Beyond that, however, their responses were as varied as their respective backgrounds. Interestingly, even those schooled in strict Orthodoxy often turned to their own subjective opinions or speculations in formulating their answers.
One topic concerned which writings and whose interpretations are authoritative. Some maintained that the Torah is not God’s word although God is somehow “in it.” Concerning whether the Torah actually came directly from God, Chaim Potok stated, “I don’t need that” (p. 212). Others, in the light of Auschwitz, were re-thinking the subject. All seemed quite aware that the reasons behind their responses were subjective and that there is no single definitive authority structure in modern Judaism.
On the issue of God’s reality and how we can “experience” him, the answers were similarly diverse. Surprisingly, the more religious often looked to twentieth-century philosophers like Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig rather than to the great rabbis of tradition when asked to give their personal views of God. To experience the Almighty, some said, requires daily observance of mitzvot. Others—those less immersed in Orthodoxy—found God elsewhere, often in the beauty or perfection of nature. Natan Sharansky, well-known former Soviet refusenik, gave perhaps the broadest statement about God when he said, “God is a power and a spirit” (p. 230). And Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, expressed the view that, “When I listen to the St. Matthew Passion, which I think is the greatest single work of music ever written, I sense the Infinite” (p. 200).
It was the issue of “chosenness” that evinced the most agreement among the fourteen. Each interviewee acknowledged the difficulty of denying the uniqueness of the Jewish people in history. At the same time, most were quick to add that this does not imply superiority. Several offered synonyms for the term “chosen” in order to avoid any misunderstanding. Some suggestions were: “singled out,” “drafted for privilege,” “chosen for mitzvah,” and “unique people.” But while the fact of uniqueness remained unavoidable, the reason for such a status seemed to be a perplexing mystery that most did not dare to describe.
The “Bostoner Rebbe” (as Rabbi Levi Isaac Horowitz is called) was the most traditional in his responses. This is not surprising, as he is the leader of a Hasidic sect. Concerning the Messiah, Horowitz believed that he would be a human being with supernatural abilities whose arrival would be recognized by all the world. Most of the others were less positive about the Messiah. A few immediately referred to the trouble brought about in history by false Messiahs (including, in their view, Jesus). But they also acknowledged that the very hope of a deliverer has been at times responsible for Jewish survival. Further responses included familiar variations on the theme of a Messianic era. A unique opinion was voiced by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the controversial Israeli “man of letters” who practices his own version of Orthodoxy. He believed that the concept of the Messiah was a substitute for faith, and wondered why anyone needed a Messiah if they had God.
Finally, the question of the afterlife was discussed. Some were embarrassed by the idea while others affirmed that we continue living through people whom we have influenced. The Bostoner Rebbe summed up the general feeling when he said, “Life is not meant to investigate what is going to happen afterwards. If you spend time on that which happens afterwards, you’ll miss the opportunities that are here in life” (p. 15).
Haberman ends the book with his own upbeat summary. He joyfully concludes that Judaism, despite modern concern, is still flourishing. In one way or another, Jews are still acknowledging the God of their ancestors. The very survival of our people points to a purpose. And it is in our survival that he sees hope for the future. His final sentence reads: “And so the Jews today remain in covenant with God” (p. 259).
God indeed is still in a covenant with the Jewish people. The question, however, is whether our Jewish people have properly responded to that covenant. The fourteen people interviewed by Haberman were articulate in regard to their Jewishness. Yet when it came to concrete beliefs about God, it was often a vague agnosticism that was expressed. Among our people, there is very little certain except our survival, with an emphasis upon remaining “us” in the midst of “them.” The things of God have replaced God Himself. In this connection, novelist Cynthia Ozick declared:
I may not be able to say what God is, who God is, how God is; I can make no definitive statement, no attributive statement about the Source of Being. But I can say what the Source is not. I’m free of idols, I’m not going to fall for false gods, false ideas. I’m buoyed up, I’m shaped by ethical monotheism, by Torah.(p. 167)
Yet God has revealed Himself. The same source that tells of God’s choosing the Jews, also explains our destiny. God wants for us not only to believe that there is a God, but to know Him in a personal way in Yeshua. After reading this thought-provoking book, I was reminded of how few answers modern Judaism has concerning the big questions of life.