What about God in 2019?

What follows is a 2019 email exchange on the topic of theology.
How are we, modern people, to understand the world today and the concept of God which has been with us as long as human history can recall.
This is an authentic dialog between two cousins, we are calling one the Canadian Cousin and the other the American cousin.
What is God's role in Judaism? What is required for Judaism's survival?

The cousins would like to maintain their anonymity but this much can be said: The Canadian is a History Teacher and the American is a scientist.

Only minor edits have been made and there are some names that have been changed.

Editor’s note: After you’ve read this, you may come back to this intro and wonder if there was an error when stating that the American cousin is the scientist while his Canadian counterpart is the history teacher. No errors. Just a truckload of irony.  

The email dialog is listed chronologically with the oldest one first and the most recent last.

Enjoy! I did!

Dear Canadian Cousin,
That Judaism survive into the future has become very important to me.
To that end, I would like to hear your thoughts. In way of background, understanding Judaism was unimportant to me while I was growing up. It was my impression that it was not particularly important to my parents, but it was important to my grandfather. Accordingly, I made the decision that I would marry Jewish. Nevertheless I remained a three day a year (+Pesach) Jew.
This changed when my parents died, making me the family Patriarch. I became active in our Synagogue. Adult Ed programs introduced me to the literature of Maimonides, Spinoza, Buber, Schechter, Kaplan etc. My indifference was replaced by a need for rational reasons to be Jewish. Mordecai Kaplan’s premise was that Judaism has survived because it has included a culture along with religious observance and that a religion could not survive without its culture. It is my observation that you gained from your parents an appreciation for Jewish culture if not a need for observance. I did not receive that cultural education

Dear American Cousin,
Kaplan’s premise is interesting, albeit not novel. He is absolutely correct that “religion could not survive without culture.” We have thousands of years of proof, back to prehistoric times, when people practiced what we can only describe as "religious beliefs” while living a life totally devoid of anything that we could possibly describe as "culture.” Whether or not, as he states, “Judaism survived because it included a culture…” is something I can live with, as long as we don’t believe that that is the ONLY reason for the survival of Judaism. There are sooo many examples of the unbelievable resilience of man to survive that I cannot possibly ascribe it to ONE reason - religion - only. But that's okay, I have no trouble if someone wishes to hold on to that “central pillar,“ as it were. You are quite correct. My family home was devoid of religious practices and beliefs. But it was remarkably rich in YIDDISH culture.
As you know, the lingua franca in the home was 95% Yiddish. Yiddish music played on the record player. Yiddish newspapers came into the home weekly, as did Yiddish journals and an endless stream of books. We attended Yiddish concerts and plays. For two years, while I was in grades 7 and 8, I attended a Yiddish ‘shule” (pronounced “shu-lah) 3 times a week, after school and on Sundays. I could, up to that age, speak and understand Yiddish 95%, but could not read it or write it. And so I learned it in those two years, and even performed in a number of Yiddish plays put on by we shule students. I was acutely aware, from perhaps age 10, that my parents were concerned about the dearth of Jewish and Yiddish culture in the city where we lived. There was a small Jewish population, and synagogue attendance was assumed to be the only path. Not for my parents. So at my age 10 we moved to Toronto, in my parents' hopes that the environment would be far richer in the Jewish/Yiddish way. For business reasons we had to return to the city where I grew up in less than a year. I was also aware that my parents were not thrilled when my brother, 5 years older than me, dated non-Jewish girls. I was equally aware that they were less than thrilled, but did not ask my brother not to marry his non-Jewish wife, but it was clear that they were not happy, and had long-term concerns.
I had no strong feelings about whom I dated or might eventually marry. I was very, very secure with my identity as a Jew, and very comfortable in my skin in that respect. But I did know, most definitely, that the person would have to be pretty much free of religious faith, and of equal importance, be on the liberal side in their political beliefs. I got blind lucky with E!! I could not help but be acutely aware of the impact that the Holocaust had on my dad. I had by now, all too often, heard the phrases muttered again and again, in many places, “God wills it,” and “The Almighty and all-seeing and compassionate God,” and “Merciful God…” Huh? I was stumped. If there IS a God, and he is so omniscient and almighty and compassionate and then how the hell can there be a Holocaust? Of course at that age who knows who they are, so I could not possibly have understood that somehow I was already, by nature I guess, strongly predisposed to be the hard-nosed, pragmatic kind of person whose view of life demands proofs. Any kind of God-belief/faith was simply not possible. With all the horror of the Shoah, in and of itself, I was forced, literally forced, to turn my back on any form of religious belief. No matter where I looked, they ALL had as their essence that central core of a belief/faith in some kind(?) of a superpower/being/force/whatever you wish to call it. So, bottom line, …no belief, no faith, and no religious observances. However, out of respect for history, we gather as a family at holiday Jewish times, and acknowledge events of the past together. It is the only rational position I can understand, certainly for myself.

Dear Canadian Cousin,
There are things that one believes empirically, not requiring rational explanation. Traditionalists treat the Torah in this manner and believe that if they obey the Mitzvahs, God will protect them (second paragraph of the Shimah-if you obey my commandments I will give you rain and good crops). This did not work for me (and apparently not for you). For most of my life it was not necessary to address the question, “what does work for me?” When I decided to do so, I had to answer the question, if God is not controlling what happens, who does, and can I make Jewish observance meaningful?
My knowledge of astrophysics is limited. It is my understanding that the Universe was created by the Big Bang. I believe that each of us is a piece of what exploded. If what exploded is God or God-like, then each of us is a piece of God. Thus we share the responsibility for what happens.

The critical question is, does any religion successfully convince man to do his part in making the world a better place and what role does observance play?
I will not judge other religions, only Judaism. It is my biased opinion that Judaism has attempted to convince Jews to protect the world and as such should continue to exist. As previously noted, Kaplan says that the Jewish religion cannot survive without a Jewish” Civilization”. Yiddishkeit is and should remain a piece of that civilization. A Sephardic would want to include their equivalent. Kaplan would also say that as the world we live in changes, so must the Jewish civilization change. It is the responsibility for Jewish organizations (Synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, or other Jewish groups) to maintain within the overall civilization a piece of Jewish civilization (I have chosen the Synagogue for my connection, but if a Synagogue is to work for me, its “TENT” must be broad enough to accept my beliefs (Spinoza and Kaplan in particular).

Dear American Cousin,
A few responses to specific points:
My knowledge of astrophysics is at least as limited as yours, but I cannot make the leap to say, as you do, that “each of us is a piece of God." I hit a wall immediately, because the word God carries no meaning for me, and hence makes no impact on me, as I have never been able to fathom the concept of a God, as the term is commonly understood. What I am about to say will sound like the height of arrogance, but… . In answer to the question, which is a perfectly reasonable one, "What works for me?” I have to confess that my own sense of who I am, what I believe, how I behave, is what works for me. Since my late teens or perhaps very early 20’s, I have been perfectly comfortable in my own skin, in my set of core values, in my conduct (at least most of the time!), in my understanding of Jewishness and Yiddishkeit, and in how I manifest all of those. This is true even in my career choice, which was a 180 degree turn at the last second. I was headed to law school…had been admitted to the top one in the country…was standing in line to pay my fees…bolted,,, walked up the street and registered to become a high school teacher, feeling that there was more value in the latter than the former. (My family had always said that I was going to be a lawyer. My mother teased (?) that "every family needs one crooked a lawyer.") At age 83, I look back, as I hope you do, and feel that perhaps I made a half-decent contribution to a segment of society by my choice.
We are in total agreement with our bias that Judaism has at least attempted to achieve what you outline for the world. But the feeling is dramatically tempered by so many of the religions in the world that have created despicable problems. Up until the time of WW I, more people had been killed in the history of man in the name of religious beliefs than in any other cause. For that reason I regret the fact that man ever evolved the concept of “religion,” no matter what form that belief took, because in its varied forms of practice mankind has paid a brutal price. As Jews we hardly need pause for even a nanosecond to think about the truth of that statement!

Dear Canadian Cousin,
Was it Aristotle who used the expression the Unmoved Mover? Would you be more comfortable with that expression for the ultimate power rather than God, or perhaps adenosine tri phosphate? Is it the word God or the concept of an ultimate power that bothers you?
In most of the animal kingdom, the alpha animal rules over all others. The beta animal rules all but the alpha animal. Why should you as an individual not similarly take all you can? Why did you worry about those kids when they exist for you to exploit? Why should you worry about global warming? Its consequences will be after we’re gone. I’ve called that characteristic a piece of God.
What can I call it that will make you comfortable?  

Dear American Cousin,
The word GOD does not disturb me any more than the word…uhmm..well, ANY word.
It’s the concept that leave me out in the cold.
As science unravels more and more of the mystery of how we came into being I become more and more pleased with the growing understandings that are inherent in the science. I’m not trying to be difficult. I just don’t “get it” when one turns to what I call “an invisible crutch," such as a God, or an Unmoved Mover, or an idol carved from clay, or any other attempt to portray/describe some sort of ‘power’ the makes no rational sense to me. But please understand, I fully respect yours or anyone else’s finding understandings wherever it may be. As I said, it just doesn’t work for me.
And I guess I will forever bemoan the development of the concept, because of the undeniable horrors it has unleashed upon humanity.

Dear Canadian Cousin,
You did not address my second paragraph.
Why are you, and others like you, concerned about anything beyond yourself?

Dear American Cousin,
As best I can, and in typical Jewish tradition, let me try to reply to it with... a question…or plural questions. Where is it written that a person who states honestly that s/he does not have a belief/faith/trust in any kind of God/god on Mt Olympus/goddess/Unmoved Mover/idol/craven image/whatever cannot possess a moral compass and purpose? Or cannot find from within the intelligence and the will and the energy to contribute positively to the betterment of human kind? Are the contributions the Socrates, Aristoteles’, the Mozarts, the Galileos, the Oppenheimers etc of history to be viewed only through the prism of their depth of religiosity regardless of whatever their beliefs or non-beliefs?
Are the behaviours and actions of the heinous Emperors like Constantine, the Popes (such as Pius XII), the ‘faithful' Cardinals who diddled young boys, to be regarded more highly than my tiny contribution to the education of the youth of my community, just because I do not have faith in an unproven ‘power’ of some fantastical (in my view) sort,
and they may have?
Maybe now answer me this, please. In what way does, let us say, a yeshiva bocher, who spends his days and nights poring over religious tomes, debating how many whatevers can prance on a whatever, contribute to the betterment of mankind more than my life’s work? Yes, me, with my godless existence, vs they with theirs.
Perhaps I was more fortunate than most, in that I was raised by parents who daily preached fervently to me, and actively modeled, the necessity to strive for a better world. Sure, like your grandfather Abe, they were deceived by the Marxian ‘faith’ that they followed, for far too long, but at least in their atheism they believed in a better world, and did what they could.
Let me end with this. Were you to challenge me to be required to provide some evidence of faith, I would easily reply with “My religion/faith is in humankind. I believe that for the most part, most will do the right thing more often than not. Can you ascribe to the same? I want to believe so."

Dear Canadian Cousin,
Perhaps I have not been open enough. I do not believe in the God in the sky. I believe in the God or Good in each of us. As Einstein said when asked if he believed in God, yes I believe in Spinoza's God, as do I. Years ago I asked my Aunt S why my grandfather A walked away from Judaism. She said that he didn't walk away from Judaism, he walked away from Jewish hierarchy. I presume his youngest brother felt much the same. My goal is that our Synagogue not make the same errors that S did for A.

Dear American Cousin,
It has always been my clear understanding that when my dad walked away from religion (most certainly not from Jewishness), and indeed from all semblance of religious convictions, it was because he saw it as a hollow/false dream that purported to lead to a better life, and he saw nothing but misery, poverty, the downtrodden “kept in their place” with nonsense such as “God will provide.” Further, he saw how religion divided mankind, and he was seeking a better world. We still seek.
I also recall him telling me that as a young man, in Bialystok, A was a very active left-winger. It may be that his fleeing to Chicago left him in the position of having to scramble for a living (as I think I have told you), and political issues simply had to be relegated to secondary importance. Was there ever any discussion with him or S re. this, in your presence?!

Dear Canadian Cousin,
You attribute your attitude to environment. Could genetics have played a part? Could that piece of God that I profess be DNA?

Dear American Cousin,
the answer is probably as simple as a reply can be: Give credit to my parents for having instilled in me, by word and even more so by example, what it means to be a mensch who cares about his fellow man. What else can I say? I would like to profess to be an atheist, but just as no one can PROVE any kind of rational ‘being/power/existence’ of something supernatural, so too can I not prove it not to exist. I simply believe it does not, and never give it a second more of thought - since perhaps age 18 or so, I guess.
Oh, I think my dad found it not just in Yiddishkeit, but in the basic principle of goodness within him. I have no doubt that Judaic principles and values were also well known to him, and that ain’t a bad start, we might agree. The communist manifesto was also wired into his consciousness - "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." And make it HAPPEN!!!
I think it’s fair to say that anyone is free to believe whatever s/he wishes, so sure, DNA could be a piece of God, should you so wish to believe. Who can prove it isn’t??? Or is?? But belief is a leap of faith correct? I simply cannot make that leap.
I think we simply observe the universe from a different point and perspective. Our good fortune to possess free will, I'd opine. 


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