Darkness and Enlightenment: Faith, Reason and Judaism

Posted: June 22, 2014 at 2:11 pm

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Welcome to the program and the third and final instalment of our three-part series on faith and reason. This week: Judaism.

We often hear it said that Judaism is about deed rather than creed and that ethical questions of how to live a good life are far more urgent than theological questions about whether God exists, or why he allows the innocent to suffer.

And yet, Judaism also has a long and distinguished history of philosophical thought, and the meaning of suffering has been a constant theme in Jewish literature, going all the way back to the Book of Job. Today were exploring that darkness, taking a tour of the Jewish Enlightenment, and looking at contemporary issues around education and that well-worn stereotype of the Jewish intellectual.


If you wanted to draw up a checklist of what religious people have to believe in order to describe themselves as such, youd probably put The Existence of God at very top. Whether or not you can prove that God exists, is a favourite gauntlet for atheists to throw down, and Christians and Muslims are often more than happy to pick it up, in the spirit of defending an indispensable pillar of faith.

In Judaism, however, the question of the existence of God is all hedged about with ambiguity (and its just the first of several ambiguities well be encountering in this program). Robert Eisen is Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at George Washington University in Washington DC.

Robert Eisen: It certainly is fundamental; its fundamental throughout the centuries, certainly up to the modern period and even after. You know, even once the modern period begins, God is at the centre of Judaism, because everything is based on this notion of God creating the world and there being a covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. God is certainly central, but I think its fair to say the Jews were a lot less obsessed with proving the existence of God, because they were a lot less obsessed than Christians with belief in general.

Jews in the Middle Ages tended to systematise action; they were interested in systematising law, not systematising belief. Also, when they finally got around to talking about God, there was a tendency to often, well, because Jews had suffered so much, of seeing God as kind of a hidden presence. Not necessarily absent but hidden, and so they were much less concerned about God than they were about asking, well, what, you know, what is it that we need to do in life? What are our religious obligations based on the 613 commandments? Now, in the modern period you have Jews beginning to question whether God is even hiding. Is he active in the world at all? Was he ever active?

And so you get from Spinoza onward the view that God is an impersonal being, kind of like a motor running the world. But even there, Jews are talking about God, so I would say God is fundamental in Judaism, less than he is, perhaps in Christianity, and Jews also entertain more radical views about God than I think Christians generally have.

David Rutledge: Well, its interesting, isnt it, how far you can push that idea of a hidden god or an absent god, even. It seems you can still entertain that idea and identify as a Jew, whereas from a Christian perspective if youre starting to doubt whether God exists or whether God is there, to some extent, its difficult to call yourself a Christian.

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Darkness and Enlightenment: Faith, Reason and Judaism

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June 22nd, 2014 at 2:11 pm