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From Days of Awe to Days of ‘Aha!’
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From Days of Awe to Days of ‘Aha!’

Why reason and religion aren’t in conflict

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On Yom Kippur, we read that God decides “who shall live and who shall die.” Given the recent stoning of an eloping couple by the Taliban in Afghanistan, how can we admit — and pray — that God decides who will die “by strangulation, and who by stoning”? As modern Jews, are we supposed to question this statement, or just accept it blindly?

Sigmund Freud had an opinion on this issue, according to Alfred Tauber, a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University and the inaugural speaker at the “Human Nature, Human Mind” lecture series at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem last year. In his forthcoming book, Freud: The Reluctant Philosopher, Tauber suggests that Freud believed people should question everything, since reason is the key to moral living.

But why should we listen to Freud — an admitted atheist — on this topic?

For one thing, Freud’s Jewish credentials are surprisingly solid. He joined the local B’nai B’rith and faithfully attended its bimonthly meetings. Beyond his Oedipal antipathy towards his father (who he claimed spoke Hebrew fluently), Freud referred to his own inability to speak Hebrew as “unfortunate.” And, despite the anti-Semitism of his day, he proudly identified himself as “‘neither Austrian nor German, but as a ‘Juif’” at a soiree in France, according to his biographer, Peter Gay.

In addition, Freud pursued a consilience, or unification of knowledge, that epitomizes our modern search for truth from all angles. According to Tauber, if Freud were pictured “in a triptych,” he would be portrayed as “a physician, sitting by the couch, listening to his patient; a studious scientist, sitting at his desk composing his theory; an intellectual entering the halls of the humanities through a side door, hoping to remain inconspicuous.”

It is no surprise then that Freud served as an inspiration to Cass Seltzer, the protagonist of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon). Cass is the author of a best-seller, whose title — Varieties of Religious Illusion — is a nod to Freud’s essay “The Future of an Illusion,” as well as William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience.

While 36 Arguments includes an appendix that debunks the 36 most oft-cited arguments for God’s existence — just as Goldstein’s protagonist’s best-seller does — the essence of the book is the narrative, which is, in some ways, a response to the so-called “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.

The narrative is broken into 36 chapters, the title of each designating a discrete “argument for” — that is, in defense of — something. Although Goldstein does not spell it out, the arguments seem to be designed to validate the true spirit of religion, as opposed to any particular theological tenets. In other words, rather than belaboring the factual evidence for and against God — which the appendix rightfully deals with as an afterthought — Goldstein uses each chapter to evoke a subtle yet awe-inspiring “aha moment” that epitomizes that ineffable and utterly human feeling at the heart of the religious spirit.

This is the Achilles’ heel of the new atheists: They seem to cackle with glee at each successive bludgeoning of religion, but their failure is proven by the religious soul — the ability to appreciate beauty, majesty, love, and more — which emerges from each assault bloodied but ultimately indomitable.

In fact, Freud, too, might have a bone to pick with the new atheists. Freud’s last completed book, Moses and Monotheism, looks at Judaism as a flawed but important step in the cultural progress of the past, and as a personal inspiration in the present. Coming from someone as dedicated to a scientific worldview as was Freud — “a major forerunner” of sociobiology, according to another biographer — this is a powerful statement.

The thinking that Freud inspires can bring about a meaningful change for those modern Jews who have long felt uncomfortable mouthing the words of the U’netane Tokef: “Who shall live and who shall die…, who by fire and who by water…, who by strangulation and who by stoning.” For them, it is critical to realize that one mustn’t accept that the gory and brazen stoning of the eloping couple in Afghanistan was allowed — or worse, decreed — by a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient deity. The religious soul does not need to unthinkingly accept doctrine, which precludes reason.

Instead, one can focus on the genuine feeling of awe and insignificance, fortune, and sadness that any thinking person must feel when they hear about current events and think about their place in the universe. This feeling, we can be sure, is what motivated the original drafters of the U’netane Tokef and the entire liturgy.

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