My Search for and Momentary Loss of God
I believe I’ve had some of my spiritual personality since I was a youngster. There was always a dimension of amazement and mystery that accompanied me — some kind of wonder at what this universe is all about; why we are here; and above all, what to do with this amazement.
I also had the desire to be holy, not just good or nice. To this day, it is the most difficult challenge in my life — how to be holy. And what is holiness? It has something to do with the constant awareness that God is to be discovered in all that one does, speaks, thinks, and feels. But that’s nearly unattainable. How does one live up to this? In my case, it leads to a kind of religious frustration. (And what about all those people who don’t want to be holy? They just want a decent, moral life and to enjoy themselves. Is that possible? Perhaps it is. I keep wondering about this.)
But my desire to be religious was not at all connected to conventional religion. If anything, it was more connected to Spinoza’s famous insight: “Deus sive natura” (God is nature) — where he equates the two. This does not really allow for a personal God Who is the Creator of the universe but, rather, God is the universe. We call this “pantheism.” I discovered the full meaning of this idea only later when my father, who was a businessman by profession, introduced me to Spinoza’s philosophy.
While many religious philosophers would say that this is heresy, I’m not so sure. First of all, I wonder whether there is something like heresy in Judaism. Secondly, we find some of Spinoza’s pantheism in the Kabbalah. Sometimes it is called “panentheism,” the belief that God is in everything but is also more than everything.
I also believe that Spinoza was the first secular tzaddik who lived a holy life, although on many occasions he deliberately misrepresented Judaism in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, probably because he wanted to find favor with the liberal Christians in Holland; had little knowledge of Judaism; was treated in a highly unfortunate way by the rabbis of the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam (of which I am a member); and was subjected to a devastating ban, which was probably more due to political reasons than to his so-called “heresy.”
I’m not sure that I am by nature a very religious person. You need to be born with this characteristic. Some people are religiously inclined, some are not. Also, I was brought up in a Dutch intellectual culture, which by definition is very skeptical, down-to-earth, and not very spiritual. God was more of a hypothesis than a living reality. There was a certain degree of contempt for religion. Reason reigned supreme.
Over the years, I learned that intellectual unreasonableness is just as much a part of our lives as reason. There are many treasures that are inaccessible to reason because they are below it or far above it. Reason and faith are two wings with which the human spirit can ascend to the contemplation of Truth.
But I also remember that as a young boy of about seven, I was searching for the Biblical personal God. I’m not sure where this need came from. Did I want to believe in God because it made the world a better place and would give me Someone to rely on? In other words: Did I want God to exist for psychological reasons, so as to feel protected (as per Freud)? I don’t believe that this is the whole story, because I also wanted God not to exist, since that would mean that I was free to do whatever I wanted — an idea that was very attractive to me.
In addition, I remember that I struggled greatly with the six days of creation as mentioned in the Bible; it seemed too simplistic and defied all that I had learned in science and biology. Strangely enough, I used to read the Dutch monthly Christian booklets on the Bible, distributed by the “YHWH Witnesses” who used to come to our neighborhood to convince people, especially Jews, of Christianity’s truth.
In one of these booklets I read a profound explanation of the six days of creation — that these days were not to be taken literally, but rather as six long periods of millions of years. I was most excited when reading this, because it solved one major problem concerning the Bible’s genuineness. It certainly pushed me in the direction of religion, although not specifically Judaism.
I find it most amusing that I read those typical Christian booklets and ultimately ended up in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva where I studied the Ketzot HaChoshen and the Avnei Miluim. Who would ever have thought that this would happen?
Over the years, I have been searching for authentic religiosity — mainly because I felt that I did not possess it. I remember having had some kind of religious experience when I studied in Gateshead Yeshiva, Europe’s most famous ultra-Orthodox rabbinical institution. For the first time in my life, I experienced Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a way I had never imagined. It was so stirring — the singing and absolute devotion of a few hundred young men. I was completely transfixed.
Now I look at it more skeptically, and realize that I was carried away, and that one could also have this experience in other religions or with a great piece of music. But that’s not a contradiction. All of these could very well be religious experiences.
Great music can never be understood intellectually. There is no such human faculty. It is ineffable. Like love, and the feeling one has when making love. It is touching on divinity, meeting God in a physical act, which causes such ecstasy that one nearly leaves the physical realm. This is the reason why I believe that all religions carry a certain divinity, although the way this happens in other religions doesn’t speak to me personally, because I can’t identify with their theologies. I also believe that in Judaism this divinity is more refined.
I sometimes watch special religious gatherings at the Vatican on the Internet, which profoundly touch me with their grandeur and deep religiosity, although my soul feels no affinity for Catholicism or any other Christian religion.
Even the spectacle around the pope is majestic. This (extremely dangerous) idolization of his personality, which is very cleverly done, is intensely emotional and uplifting, and clearly touches on deep religious sentiments in human beings. The ritual built around it is most skillful. Ritual in general is very powerful because it can touch on deep-seated emotional and religious dimensions in the human being, which cannot be reached in any other way.
I don’t think that we Jews can compete with this spectacle of the Church. Ours is poor compared to that of the Catholics. Image-making is a form of avodah zarah (idol worship) when it is taken too far, and that is exactly what the Church does.
Still, the idolization of gedolei hador (the great rabbis of today) frightens me, especially when I think of this highly anti-Jewish idea called “Daas Toirah,” which makes these rabbis infallible. How did this become part of contemporary Judaism? Did we steal it from the Catholic Church?
I am also taken aback by the way that the pope appears in his white dress, very well instructed on how to walk, behave, speak, and make physical gestures; and how he lives in luxurious mansions like the Vatican. Again, all of it is very impressive and majestic. On the other hand, to their credit, and because of their integrity, our great rabbis would never agree to this. In fact, they have an inherent aversion to it.
One last observation: There are many moments in my life when I live in a mode that I call “Living as if God exists.” It means that I have lost the connection with the religious experience. I am not sure whether He is there. Maybe, maybe not. And above all: Who is He? I am unable to fathom Him. So Who am I speaking to? Is Anybody listening?
During these moments, I continue to live a religious-halachic life because I see tremendous value in these rituals and halachot, even if there were no God. There is still much spirituality there — great symbolism and profundity. Even in the prayers. They are beautiful, and saying them is an experience in itself. Whether God exists or not is not so important in such a moment.
I think that before we can actually discover God we need to study religious awe and piety, but this is not an academic-philosophical problem that we can solve in the conventional sense of the word.
We need to enter another world — one of meta-existentialism. Yeshivot should see this as one of their main tasks, but completely fail to do so. The truth is that nearly none of the yeshiva leadership know what this is all about. Only in Biblical times and in the old schools of Chassidut was there some aspect of this, but it seems to have been lost even in these circles.
A real tragedy.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.