It’s impossible to believe in nothing because then nothing is to be believed
How many people have declared, “I believe in G-d but I don’t believe in organized religion”? The actual number or percentage is unknown, but such individuals who reject religious dogma are hanging on to a fundamental belief in the Supreme Being, Master of the Universe, or in some undefined “higher intelligence” and understand that principles of love, justice and morality are expressions of the Divine Consciousness. All of those disillusioned intuitive minds who stubbornly refuse to blame the Almighty for this human invention called “religion” is actually in harmony with G-d and His universe. They only need to explore further to learn what our Creator has revealed in the Torah. If you fall into this way of thinking, you are also in agreement with the Jewish perspective because Judaism is not a religion, but a nation of laws. Moreover, the Jews, as the chosen people, are the example, not the exception; so that in truth all of humanity is a conglomerate nation of laws.
On the other hand, one question people often ask is “What is the difference between organizing as a people with a common purpose to follow G-d’s laws and Western religious organization?” After all, both systems advocate turning away from sin and performing good deeds. The difference is in how a person learns to view the human spiritual condition from birth to death.
Mainstream theocratic doctrine teaches that we are all born with the burden of the original sin and there is nothing we can do through our own actions to transform ourselves from the status of sinners to being righteous. This premise is false because we are all born innocent. We know this because newborns are pure possibility with only a future and no past. It is impossible for them to be sinners at birth because they haven’t committed any sins and are incapable of contemplating and committing an evil act. Since we live in a world of action, the only thing that makes one into a sinner is the sin and only while it is being committed. A boor becomes a gentleman the moment he begins to display good manners and reverts back to being a boor if he again falls back into his uncouth behavior.
Then again, one may argue that all infants are born with the potential to become sinners and are, therefore, inherently evil requiring redemption through the ultimate sacrificial scapegoat. However, all babies are also born with the potential to become righteous being that we all live in a world of opposites and have a world of opposites living within us. Therefore, each newborn is in a state of neutrality with both good and evil inclinations poised to fight for control of the mind-body as soon as the child reaches the age of reason. This is when free will comes into play as the child learns to overcome animalistic impulses to reach the goals of full compliance with G-d’s Laws; provided that he or she has a proper teacher.
Additionally, the Torah has a built in process for both individual and global redemption through confession and atonement. Slow to anger and quick to forgive is one of the Torah’s descriptions of G-d’s attributes. Hence, we develop our relationship with the Almighty by struggling to overcome our animalistic urges because each time we succumb we can experience shame, which is a powerful motivating force for returning to a state of G-dliness.
Furthermore, the Bible stresses personal responsibility. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of sons, and sons shall not be put to death because of fathers; a man should be put to death for his own sin.” The plain meaning is that G-d does not hold children or parents accountable for the other’s sins. There is, however, one passage that seems contradictory in Exodus 20:5 saying that “the sins of fathers will fall upon future generations”. Yet, that verse refers only to children who choose to continue the misdeeds of their parents. For example, if a thief teaches his son how to steal, the son has no guilt if he decides upon reaching adulthood to live an honest life.
On the other hand, one might argue that Adam and Eve brought death into the world with original sin so we continue to suffer because of it. But that doesn’t make us guilty at birth. It only means that Adam’s and Eve’s actions resulted in a change in their genetic programming which introduced aging and ultimate death. Accordingly, their post-Eden offspring were all born with the additional post creation gene that causes the human body to ultimately self destruct.
Therefore, the concept of guilt or innocence at birth is purely a spiritual consideration and Adam and Eve paid their dues and ultimately repented. Moreover, since the soul has a mission to overcome temptation it has to start with a clean slate with equal potential for good or evil and the free will to choose between them. Otherwise, if we were all born with evil souls with no hope of redemption through our own thought, speech and action, then life would truly be empty and meaningless.
To continue, our Creator gave us laws and the free will to choose between obedience and rebellion. He also created within us the ability to learn by our mistakes through experiencing the consequences of our choices with forgiveness waiting at the end of each moment of realization. Thus life is not about reward and punishment; it’s about personal growth because belief in G-d is not enough to inspire obedience. Also, fear of punishment is not going to do it either because almost everything happens in a natural way with Divine intervention always concealed. So it doesn’t always appear as if what just happened is a consequence of what we just did and if we don’t see the cause-and-effect we can’t know specifically which past action, if any, brought down the difficulty. Sometimes, what seems to be a disaster is really a blessing, like losing one job and soon after finding a better one for more pay. Moreover, desire for reward won’t do it either, because often, disobeying the Law is a matter of choosing an action that brings instant pleasure and the reward for abstaining is not readily apparent.
Thus the motivation that we need to be eager to observe the Creator’s rules of conduct is awe of a power so great that it is beyond what we can understand. That is how we develop faith that all of G-d’s laws are for our good leading only to ultimate joy and success. The next obvious question is, “How do we develop such awe?” The answer is by learning as much as we can understand about G-d and the purpose of creation. The good news is that for those of us who grew up in a society that sanctifies life and respects the rights of others, we already have a strong sense of right and wrong from the Divine perspective. The seven laws of Noah have become the foundation of law in all civilized societies and aside from those, we naturally gravitate toward people who are nice and polite and avoid those who are nasty and rude. Therefore, most of us already have a basic understanding of how to live in peace and harmony with each other, which is our Creator’s objective in giving us His Law. But we haven’t been able to accomplish peace on a global and personal level because most of us haven’t reached the point of total obedience to our G-d. What’s missing for most people is to want to comply with the seven Universal Laws simply because G-d said so.
Thus, we need guidance because everyday we are faced with choices and we don’t always know and most often don’t even think about whether the action we take or what we say is the right thing or not. Consequently, being in awe of the Almighty to the extent that one feels motivated to follow His laws is a process of learning by education and experience and applying the acquired knowledge to our daily lives. This is the way to relate to the Divine without religion.
Are we Something or Nothing?
Our place in this world is a temporary residence, starting life as a putrid drop and ending as worm food with a few riotous moments of self awareness in between on this very short roller coaster ride called “life”. So is that it? Are we to believe that there is nothing else beyond this corporeal existence? The interesting thing about time and space is that regarding any inevitable outcome from which there is no escape, we already are what we will become. Thus if the end of life for each of us means that we become nothing, then we are already nothing and, since we started as nothing, then we have never existed. So, who’s writing this book?
Ah, but since I wrote this and you are reading it, we do exist and so we are not nothing. But if we exist then we must have purpose. Just look around at nature and you will see that everything on this planet is a part of a structure called the ecology and each thing has a purpose and function that keeps this planet teeming with life. Also, every part of your body has a specific purpose and function that keeps you alive. Moreover, the entire organism or body part engages with every fiber of its being to fulfilling its purpose and function. So that brings us to the very reason why we exist as human beings; we each have a mission. Just like every other entity we each have purpose in the scheme of the universe as a moving part in one huge machine. We also have an intellect that sets us apart from all other components and is the means by which we fulfill our assignment through thought, speech and action.
Therefore, for those who are still searching for the meaning of life, we can only answer the question of being something rather than nothing by concluding that our lives are an eternal process of transformation from one phase to the next; and that brings us to our mission; to make this world a suitable dwelling place for our Creator. This will be a world without war, famine, disease, competition and jealousy. Everyone will be content and all mankind will live as one unified community serving the Almighty under the leadership of the Messiah.
However, when we think about this mission it’s a daunting task. Looking at the world as it is, there are many questions like “How do we unify a world full of conflicting self interest culminating in war?” The answer is we have a model of what the world is supposed to be like, so we have something to which we can aspire. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachim Schneerson of blessed memory) has pointed out, at the culmination of the sixth day of creation, “G-d observed all that He had created and saw that it was good.” This was the world before Adam and Eve committed the first act of disobedience followed by their initial failure to repent.
So that’s how we know that G-d intended for our world to be a paradise of peace and prosperity. Therefore, our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to restore this world to its original state. Thus, since it was human behavior that lowered the status of the world on the sixth day of creation, it is human behavior that will restore it. In other words, G-d gave us the power to change the world for the worse or the better through a mechanism called “free will”. And, even though there were only two people on the planet then and now there are about six billion, each of us has the same power as our two common ancestors to either lower the world further or elevate it. Thus, it all boils down to obedience versus rebellion; and since disobedience to G-d’s law brought the world down, obedience will raise it back up.
The Outer Limits and Beyond
However, the one big question at the hub of the ever-raging debate between atheists and believers is who or what is G-d? The answer, as stated earlier, is that no one knows. The whole G-d concept is beyond our understanding; it’s impossible to grasp. This bewilderment is why we have atheists. It’s a question of accepting the limitation of even our wildest imaginations. But actually we do understand G-d up to a point because we have references; and we are also able to define the outer limits of our comprehension; it has to do with time. This limitation becomes apparent with a simple declaration about G-d that Jewish children learn in grade school, “G-d always was, He is now, and He will always be.”
When I first heard that statement in Hebrew school at age ten, I raised my hand in response and said, “Rabbi, I can understand the ‘is now’ and the ‘will always be’ part, but I can’t understand the ‘always was’. Everything has a beginning. The first words in the Bible are ‘In the beginning’.”
The rabbi replied, “Very good, Moshe, that’s precisely it.”
“I don’t understand it either and neither has anyone else ever been able to including King Solomon who was the wisest man that ever lived. But there it is, ‘He always was’.”
The Rabbi was trying to explain that the concept “He always was” is not fathomable because it transcends life as we know it, which has a beginning, middle and an end and is intertwined with time. Our self awareness ties exclusively into past present and future with our memories, experiences and future plans. Therefore, we can wish to live forever but it’s impossible to conceive a time before time, because the first moment had only a present and future, but no past. Hence, with this discussion, we reach the outer limits of our intellectual capacity.
Moreover, the first word in the Bible is “Beraysheet”, which means “In the beginning.” Thus, G-d’s first creation was time and space, which arose with the first Divine utterance. Hence, language and reality arose together within this framework called time. Therefore, since our brains exist only within this created time-dependent reality, it’s impossible for our minds to grasp what was prior to the first moment because the first moment has no prior from our perspective.
Finally, as time moves relentlessly forward, we often think of what lies ahead at the end of our journey. It’s difficult to conceptualize a modern-day Garden of Eden with several billion people. Certainly, we won’t be shedding our clothes and conveniences. It will be a changed world for sure, but only in regards to the behaviors of man and beast. How the world appears to us is a matter of perception. We all see only what is revealed and we know that there are many aspects of this world that are hidden, like the ocean depths and the energy that binds matter and holds its components together. And, whether we perceive beauty or ugliness in the revealed world depends on how others behave toward each other or each of us.
We also know from Hassidic sources that although the Creator concealed His presence, we can see the G-dliness around us if we know how to look for it. For example, the earth contains within it a powerful life-giving force. An apple seed sitting in a dish will forever remain an apple seed. But bury it in fertile soil with the right amount of water and the outer layer will rot and a new tree will grow with enough strength to push its way through the surface and rise above the ground with roots growing downward to anchor it in place. From where does the Earth’s power to give life come? It’s the G-dliness that will become more and more revealed as we elevate this world with our obedience to G-d’s law.