The Secular Religious Dialectic: A Dialogue

Lawrence Bush, 6/17/2005

Since this is billed as a dialogue and not a debate, I hope you will all bear with me as I use most of my 25-minute preliminary remarking to do some storytelling.

Story number one, which I received from Professor Gerry Sorin of SUNY New Paltz: A Jew named Moishe has been transacting last-minute business on Friday afternoon on the far edge of his shtetl. He suddenly realizes that there's no way he's going to make it home before sundown, so he heads to the nearby home of the town's most orthodox and learned rabbi and asks to share the family's sabbath meal so as to avoid traipsing on home. The rabbi, however, already has admitted several other people in similar straits, along with a few invited guests, and tells Moishe that there's really no more room.

"But Rabbi," says Moishe, "what am I to do?" The rabbi assures him: "I'm sure that God will provide." So Moishe walks on, worried, until he spies the home of Yankl the Bundist. Of course, Moishe's reluctant even to knock on Yankl's door - the man is, after all, an atheist and a radical. But the sundown in really about to happen, so Moishe does what he must.

Yankl listens to his story and invites him in. Moishe is amazed to see a very proper and beautiful sabbath setting on Yankl's table, with sabbath candles burning. So after a delicious meal, Moishe loosens up and says, "Yankl, I don't understand any of this. I go to the home of the most holy man in town, and he tells me to go away, that God will provide. And then I come to you, an atheist and a radical, and you treat me like a real Jew."

"Because," says Yankl the Bundist, "I knew that God would not provide."

Now, don't be fooled by the anti-clerical point of this story. A larger point for our discussion today is that Yankl is observing a Bundist's Sabbath.

Story number two: The Bible and the Bomb and the Fall from Eden. A newbom infant lies in its crib. It knows no boundaries of self. It experiences the universe as a sentient, undifferentiated unity. It experiences itself as a pantheon of beings. It experiences its parents as giants subject to its will, existing to satisfy its hungers.

Now it feels hunger swelling in its body, and cries: We are hungry. But at that moment Mother is in the bathroom, and so, for the first time since the infant was born, it has to abide being hungry for five horrible, life-threatening minutes. And it thinks: The giants are autonomous! (We are dependent.) The world has boundaries! (We end somewhere.) We are naked.

Oh, giants. We smile at you, we gurgle at you, we scream at you: "Let us back into the garden. Let us be merged once again." No use! It happens over and over: We have lost control. And as a result, we may die! Control! We need control. Tighten the sphincter muscles- Collect ourselves into an ego. Distrust all change. And then nuke the bastards.

Story number three: I am riding the subway in New York, going to see the movie Gandhi. I am carrying with me a Bible, which I'm reading as part of my research for a novel. I realize how intensely embarrassed I am to be reading a Bible in public; how I am doing all that I can to keep the words on the cover and spine hidden; how I would be more content holding the book inside an edition of the New York Post: and how sick, how very sick, that is. I am trapped in the most primitive intellectual prejudice against religion. I assume that anyone who reads the Bible or Torah in public must be a fanatic, an ignoramus and a sexually repressed person to boot. Therefore, apart from a college class, this is the first time I am substantially reading this most influential, most mythically profound and provoking of books... How ridiculous I am.

Story number four: Recently I came upon this passage in a natural science magazine:

"Particularly since World War II, tropical forests, which cover only 7% of the earth's surface, have been under assault in Latin America, tropical Africa and Asia. These forests, which support about half of all species, are being cleared for agriculture and logged at an enormous rate. A third of them are already gone. This is the case for country after country. 15% of the loss is due to cattle-ranching in Latin America - the so-called hamburger connection in which large fast-food outlets in the U.S. and Europe foster the clearance of forests to produce cheap beef. And 15% of the forests have been cut for lumber. If this pattern continues, it could mean the demise of two million species by the middle of next century. We are surely losing one or more species a day right now."

"Repent," says the madman of countless cartoons, "for the end of the world is near." As I contemplated this article about the rape of our earth, I realized that I scoff at the madman only because I hear him meaning, "Repent because the end is near" - repent because, so it is written, that the end is near, and you'd better repent. I scoff at the madman when I hear him as a religious fatalist, in other words. But I respect the madman -1 am the madman - if I hear him meaning, "Repent or else the end of the world is near." Repent to prevent - there's a political slogan for the '80s if ever I've heard one.

This, for me, is one of Art Waskow's great teachings: that, as he recently wrote to me in anticipation of this dialogue: "I do believe that creating in modem society a profound readiness to pause, make Shabbos, let be, not do, is at this particular moment of history the most important repairing, acting, making thing we could do."

Pablo Neruda said it deliciously in my favorite of poems, Keeping it Quiet:

Now we will count to twelve
And we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let's not speak in any language;
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothe
and walk about with their brother
in the shade, doing nothing.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Number five: I have finished my storytelling, and some patient soul in the audience leaps up and challenges me to "come off the fence. Look, Bush: Do you believe in God or not? If not, then why pursue this religious shit?"

I respond: "If my ideas must be fit into multiple choice categories, I will check off, 'No, I do not believe in God." Yet belief in God, I maintain, is not the crucial question of "this religious shit." It is not the key tension of the secular-religious dialectic. Belief in God would not: protect Arthur Waskow from being excommunicated under an orthodox Jewish theocracy as quickly as me. Atheism would not prevent me from being sent to the gulag by an orthodox Marxist government as quickly as Arthur.

In fact, the Talmud itself tells a story to affirm the non-centrality of God - a story that I received from the writings of Erich Fromm, a devout and brilliant secularist. A group of rabbis are arguing about a point of ritual law. Rabbi Eliezar, a minority of one, says, "If I am right about the law, that tree shall tell us." Whereupon the tree jumps a hundred yards. His colleagues say, "One does not prove anything from a tree." Eliezar then says, "If I'm right, the brook shall tell us." Then the brook runs upstream. But again the opposing rabbis say, "One does not prove anything from a brook." So next Rabbi Eliezar calls upon the walls of the house for proof, and they start to collapse. But Rabbi Joshua yells at the walls for interfering with scholarly debate, so the walls stop falling out of respect for him but don't straighten up out of respect for Rabbi Eliezar.

Next Rabbi Eliezar says, "Well, if I'm right, the heavens shall tell us." Whereupon a voice from heaven says, "What have you against Eliezar, for the law is as he says." But Rabbi Joshua again argues: "It is written in the Bible: the law is not in heaven." What does this mean? According to Rabbi Yirmiyahu, it means that since the Torah was given to us at Sinai, we no longer pay attention to voices from heaven because it is written: "You make your decision according to majority opinion."

And at this point Rabbi Nathan, another participant, saw the Prophet Elijah walking upon the Earth. So Rabbi Nathan asked the Prophet, "What did God himself say when we had this discussion?" And Elijah said, "God laughed and said, 'My children have won, my children have won.

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