A few weeks ago, I was sent a joke by a Jewish friend of mine with whom I had had a rather challenging Shabbat dinner conversation on Judaic laws.
I had asked him why religious laws that seemed to be so central, so immutable and so absolute, were in fact applied so entirely differently, not only from one Jewish community to the next (Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, etc.), but also over time within the entire Jewish tribe by and large?
I had specifically asked my friend why lapidation, for instance, was no longer practiced, since it appeared to have been such an essential law?
Note: The laws of the Torah and the Mishna list a number of circumstances where death by stoning is considered to be the appropriate punishment – such as, for instance, getting married as though of a virgin, when not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13-21), or in the case of a girl being raped, if she did not cry out (Deuteronomy 22:24). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoning#In_Judaism)
After a particularly heated debate that moved neither one of us any further towards understanding the other, my friend threw his hands up in frustration and told me that I “clearly did not know what I was talking about.”
Two days later, he sent me the following joke – just to make sure I got the message loud and clear:
An atheist was seated next to a Rabbi on an airplane and he turned to him and said, “Would you like to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike up a conversation with a fellow passenger.” The Rabbi, who had just started to read his sefer, replied to the total stranger, “What would you want to talk about?” “Oh, I don’t know,” said the atheist. “How about how there is no God, or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death?” as he smiled smugly. ”OK,” said the Rabbi, “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, a cow turns out a flat patty, and a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?” The atheist, visibly surprised by the Rabbi’s question, thinks about it and says, “Hmmm, I have no idea.” To which the Rabbi replies, “Do you really feel qualified to discuss whether there is no God, Heaven or Hell, when you don’t know shit?”
The hidden message behind this rather amusing fable, is in many ways not that dissimilar from the criticism once directed by a Bronx Rabbi at Albert Einstein (and to Catholic Cardinal William Henry O’Connell) for reflecting on matters outside their alleged expertise: “Einstein would have done better had he not proclaimed his nonbelief in a God who is concerned with fates and actions of individuals. Both have handed down dicta outside their jurisdiction.”
This dogmatic stratagem, exploited by many religions, is essentially a tactic to avoid any form of questioning by restricting comments or inquiries strictly to the learned clerics who tightly control the precepts of these religions and concurrently by simply dismissing entirely any conflicting comment as “uneducated,” “uninformed,” “irrelevant” or “out of one’s jurisdiction.”
What jurisdiction should exclude Albert Einstein from questioning the religious practices of his very own tribe? Who has the monopoly on God? Who has the legitimate authority of restricting others from debating matters of faith? Anyone who lives has the authority to reflect upon life. Anyone who shall die has the authority to question after life? Anyone who loves should concern himself or herself with ethics. Anyone who thinks has the authority to query the concepts of God, Heaven or Hell.
Since my Jewish friend so eagerly handed me the stick, I came-up with a slight variation on the “holy shit” joke or on the discrepancies of religious laws and varied forms and substances of sacred bovine excrements. My story goes like this:
An agnostic man was seated next to three Rabbis on an airplane – an Orthodox Rabbi with a back hat, reading his sefer, a Conservative Rabbi wearing a kippa s’ruga and carrying a beautiful multi-coloured tallit and a Reform Rabbi wearing a fairly short skirt and reading the latest edition of The New Yorker. The agnostic man turns towards them and says: “With all due respect, the three of you strangely remind me of herbivores – a horse, a deer and a cow.” “Why is that?” ask the men (and woman) of God, visibly surprised. “Well,” says the agnostic man, “You all swallow the same stuff … yet you all come up with very different shit!” *
*Note for my non-Jewish readers; my story works equally well with a Priest a Rabbi and an Imam.
I am, and have always been, deeply and religiously agnostic. Intolerant of any form of intolerance. The concepts of God(s) designed in man’s image or as heavenly avatars of a collection of natural phenomena or primitive existential angst, have always appeared to me as rather puerile and over simplistic superstitions. I fear that the question of God cannot and shall never be answered – neither by the eager “yes” of religious zealots nor the dismissive “no” of scientific clerics or crusading atheists.
I personally subscribe modestly and indolently to an open-minded attitude of humility and impartial consideration. I recognize that the humanity of our most brilliant minds, to which I far from belong, will never pierce the deepest metaphysical and ontological mysteries of our souls, our hearts, our universe and our very own existence.
“The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds,” once replied Albert Einstein to a Journalist’ questioning him on his belief in God. “May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations.”
I have to confess, I have no faith. I embrace fragility and evanescence. I am not prepared to battle on myths, presumptions, superstitions or hypotheses. Some do – fiercely – giving their lives, and more often than not, taking others. I don’t own the truth. I believe that the most important human endeavor is Love. Love for others. Love as the source of beauty, meaning, truth, intelligence, legitimacy, ethical conduct and dignity. Love as the source of our very humanity. Love as a principle guiding the morality of our actions in a world without certitudes and transcendental authority – a world without God, or perhaps worse, a world of far too many.
Love is God – this is my belief. It is simple. Whoever tells you the contrary may perhaps have it backwards …