Belief in God Is Not the Problem in Israel

The truly worrisome finding in [the Guttman Center's] study is not the apparent belief in God, but rather the inverse relationship demonstrated ... between this belief and the belief in democratic values: The stricter a respondent's worldview, the less he identified with democratic values.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

Outrage has erupted over the Guttman Center's recent study of Israelis' attitudes toward religion and tradition.

In particular, the finding that 84 percent of Jewish Israelis believe in God has attracted special attention. (Full disclosure: I work as a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, where the study was conducted, but I did not participate in the study itself. ) It seems that many people consider this finding to be despairing testimony regarding the inability of Israelis to maintain a rational policy and/or democratic worldview.

Yet it is precisely this reaction that endangers the future of democratic and even rational discourse in Israel, much more than the actual belief in God. This is because anyone who relies on a rational outlook that is not just philosophical, but also considers the human reality with open eyes, immediately understands that those 84 percent are not expressing devotion to any orderly theological doctrine. Rather, they are expressing a psychological need for belief.

This is a need that began at the dawn of humanity, when man first began to recognize the power of forces over which he has no control and the chaotic potential they harness. From that moment on, man began to believe in a supreme power, and he developed the desire to believe there is order behind the chaos. What's more, he developed a special desire to believe that it is within man's ability to influence supreme powers through his deeds.

In this respect, the secular era of the past 250 years is nothing but a relatively brief episode in the history of mankind, and even during this period there has never been secular exclusivity. It is natural that this would be the case, since belief is nearly a part of man's nature - not his biological nature, but definitely his psychological nature.

Therefore, the key question is not whether to believe in God, but rather what the nature of God is: Is He an inclusive God, a merciful and compassionate God who takes all of mankind created "in his image" under his wing? Or is He an exclusive God, a jealous and vengeful God who demands of his believers that they fight anyone who is different from them and who is perceived as not fulfilling His commands?

The historical reality also teaches the complexity of the relationship between belief and humanism: Joseph Stalin was an avowed atheist, whereas Martin Luther King believed in God with all his being.

Indeed, in Judaism, as in other religions, both options exist in full force. The choice and the attendant responsibility for its results are in the hands of the believers. Therefore, the truly worrisome finding in the study is not the apparent belief in God, but rather the inverse relationship demonstrated (not for the first time, of course ) between this belief and the belief in democratic values: The stricter a respondent's worldview, the less he identified with democratic values, and vice versa.

This situation derives from the perception of religious identity mainly in a negative context, as a collection of prohibitions and restrictions aimed at differentiating the Jew from his surroundings - first of all from his non-Jewish surroundings, and also from his non-religious surroundings. In any case, anyone who wants to change the negative relationship between religious identification and humanist values must not define religious identity based on an aggregate of prohibitions, but rather on the positive question of what Judaism aims to achieve. What kind of world does it want to advance?

Once this is accomplished, two things will be revealed. One is that when we speak the language of positive goals, Judaism by its very nature becomes more inclusive. The other is that, in actuality, when the basic aim of religion is defined in a positive way, it becomes clear that the relationship with the aims of "the other" (the secular person, the non-Jew and the like ) is not necessarily a zero-sum game that invites struggle, but rather is a large space that is at the very least neutral, if not shared.

It's like the famous fable about the coveted orange. Two antagonists engage in a bloody struggle over the orange, until finally it becomes clear that one needs the peel while the other needs the flesh. To that end, it is better for the secular person not to define themselves in terms of their decision to disavow religion, but rather in terms of their positive values.

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