Religion needs to pose questions, not fish for answers

Pssst: Do you believe in God?

I whisper the question because we seem to live in a time when it is not asked in polite company — at least not in polite Jewish company. We'd sooner talk sex than talk God.

Perhaps that's because most of us realize that our beliefs haven't been much updated since we were children. The white beard is gone, to be sure, but we still want a God who comforts us when things go bump in the night. And we're appropriately self-conscious about that.

But what if the point of religion is not to bring comfort — or, more precisely, what if its point is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable? What if religion — at any rate the religion we call Judaism — no longer seeks to answer questions that cannot otherwise be answered, but instead insists on questions that might otherwise not be asked?

Back when folks first imagined gods, they were apparently trying to explain thunder and drought and other natural phenomena. But now we have science, and what was yesterday inexplicable will tomorrow be explained in public school textbooks. Look to religion to explain the "how" things and, unless you turn your back on science, you'll experience a god that shrinks a bit more with each passing day.

Well then, how about religion not as the key to the how of things but as the key to the why of things? But that doesn't work either, not unless you're prepared to accept a fundamentalist explanation of the kind that led some ultras in Israel a few years ago to "explain" the Katyushas falling on Kiryat Shmona as punishment for people not having checked their mezuzahs as they were instructed to.

The best that a serious religion can do with "Why?" is to respond, "Because." God, in other words, has reasons beyond our comprehension, and our efforts to divine the Divine are doomed.

No, Judaism isn't about how or why; it is about where, as in "Where are you?" and "Where is your brother?" It is not about God's answers; it is about God's questions — and our responses. And that renders the matter of belief pretty much irrelevant.

What gives rise to these observations is yet another in a string of encounters with young people who tell me they want to be Jewish but that they think themselves "unqualified" since they don't believe in God — at least the God they encountered in religious school. Their sense of the community is that it no longer has room for secularism; it presumes belief.

Are they wrong? At a time when the scattered Yiddish schools of our community, once bastions of a determined secularism, make provisions for the bar mitzvah of their students, and when Humanistic Judaism seems to be something more than a flash in the pan, we might as well tell it like it is: Many of us are secular, but very few of us are secularists.

Now that Judaism has won — half a century ago, its victory was by no means assured — it is time to accept that ours is a religious language and a religious sensibility. The battle of religion against secularism is no longer interesting; it is our response, both communal and personal, to Judaism's insistent questions that commands our attention.

But all that doesn't render belief a precondition for life as a Jew. You don't have to take God literally in order to take God seriously. Our tradition isn't especially interested in what you believe or don't; it cares about how you live. Judaism's questions are gifts meant to point the way to a life of purpose, of meaning.

When the question "Where are you?" is asked, the tradition admits of only one answer: Hineini — here I am. As my teacher, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, wrote in 1988, in an essay explaining "how Jewish baseball is."

The most important truth about the game is this: "Much of it is boring. You wait and you wait — sometimes for almost the whole, long game. But finally — and no one knows exactly when it will be — you will be the only one who can catch a fly ball or the only one who can drive in the winning run. Everything will depend on you. For that single moment, no matter how slowly it comes, the player must always be ready.

"There may be no second chance."