Thoughts about God, me, and us

Here’s an article I’ve written to coincide with the Jewish New Year, which begins Sunday evening. Though it is primarily about Jewish issues, I think there are some universal elements, and please feel free to comment on it.

The article has appeared here in the Algemeiner and here in the Canadian CIJA exchange.

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Let’s get some things straight about God and me as they relate to the tension and hatred among Jews in Israel and abroad.

  1. I do not believe that I have a personal relationship with God.
  2. I do not believe that God answers my prayers.
  3. I do not believe that the words and stories of the Torah are to be taken literally.
  4. I do believe that God is a complex concept that no human—not a rabbi, and certainly not a journalist like me—can fully understand.

One of the main problems is that many of us form our concept of God when we are children, and we don’t revise it as we grow up.

We picture a kind, elderly (white) man with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there. He is all-powerful, and that means He can do whatever He wants whenever He wants.

That image is more like Santa Claus than God, but then, Santa Claus is also a childhood image.

An article in a Jewish publication ridiculing Rosh Hashana services and concepts and urging Jews not to observe them is what drove me to put these thoughts down. The author wrote that it’s absurd to think that there’s a Supreme Being with a book open to our page, and He will decide whether we get to live or not, depending on our behavior and whether we atone for our sins.

That’s as childish as believing that there’s a red-suited figure that decides who’ll get Christmas presents, depending on whether they’ve been naughty or nice. For a few years, it works.

Then people outgrow Santa Claus, but most retain the “Christmas spirit,” giving gifts to each other and celebrating the holiday with family gatherings and church services.

Similarly, the “Supreme Being with book open to our page” image should become symbolic in a mature mind, reminding us of our moral obligations and warning us of consequences if we ignore them. Taking it literally is like believing in Santa Claus.

An atheist relative asserted years ago, “If God is good, there is no God. If God is bad, he isn’t God.” That would work if the childish, two-dimensional image of God were correct.

But the Bible itself doesn’t draw that image. In the Bible, God puts before us the ability and responsibility to choose between good and evil. Several times God promises wondrous blessings for choosing good and blood-curdling curses if we choose evil.

Have these blessings ever come to pass? Or the curses? No, not literally.

Time and again, the Torah tells us not to take its words literally. God begins by creating light on the first day and the sun on the fourth. He has created light and has “counted” three “days” before He has a sun.

That’s just the first of many examples. Did God really part the Red Sea? Did He cause manna to fall from the heavens six days a week for 40 years as the Israelites crossed the desert?

The answer is—it doesn’t matter. As adults, most of us file those stories away without comment and go about our lives. If we are religious (not necessarily Orthodox), we follow the precepts and lessons derived from the stories and the rest of the Torah as our life style. Or we don’t.

There’s that ability to choose again. It’s the key to understanding the concept of God as much as we mortals can hope to understand it.

We live in an age where it’s us against them. It’s Israel against the world, it’s the world against Israel, it’s Israel against the Diaspora, it’s Orthodox Jews against all other Jews. Some of these conflicts are imposed on us. We choose to fight others. Choose.

Many Orthodox Jews are so sure of themselves that they reject any other form of Judaism as invalid, improper, even sinful. They try to impose their brand of Judaism on everyone else, with no small measure of success—the Orthodox (now ultra-Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate controls all aspects of officially sanctioned Jewish religious life in Israel.

In turn, this attitude provokes hatred—not just of Orthodox Jews, but of Judaism itself. It accomplishes the opposite of what Judaism is supposed to accomplish.

Anyone, any Jew, who believes that he and he alone has the only correct answer flies in the face of the Talmud, where rabbis argue about every issue imaginable (and some that exceed imagination) but strive to come to agreement, not to perpetuate the rifts. The Torah places unity on a high moral plane and warns against infighting. Who are we to behave in contradiction to the Talmud and the Torah in the name of God?

Do just some of us have the only open channel to God? Just the opposite. I don’t believe that I have a personal relationship with God at all. I don’t believe that He needs my prayers. I don’t believe He watches over me. When I pray every day, it’s for me, not for Him. It’s to put a frame around my day, to keep me aware that there is something bigger, purer and better that I must strive for. That’s my only reward.

In my prayers, I have never asked God to get me a new car, or win the lottery, or favor my basketball team. My prayers are to strengthen me in my commitment to do good in the world. I don’t expect an answer.

 

I’m amused when a football player points skyward after he crosses the goal line. If he believes that God was watching over him when scored the touchdown, then if he got tackled on the one-yard line, God was watching over him then, too—and as a God-fearing person, the player must leap up from the pile (if he can) and point skyward in praise of God! I’m still waiting to see that.

I don’t believe God cares whether Maccabi Tel Aviv wins a game or whether Mark Lavie remains healthy. I hope people will say a prayer for me if I’m ill, just as I do when people I know are ill—but not because I believe that there’s some critical mass of prayer that will impel God to fix a broken body. No, because praying for someone connects you to the person, reminds you of their needs, and impels you to do good.

So what does God care about? I have no idea. It’s none of my business, and even if it were my business, I would not be able to understand. Look, I can’t even understand the concept of infinity. I mean, there must be an end to the universe somewhere, but if there is, then there’s something beyond that, and how is that possible? God made it, so pretty clearly He understands it, but I don’t. I can’t. All I can do is what I can do.

God has already done so much. He created the world, took care of little details like making solid water lighter than liquid water, without which there could be no life here, gave us a Torah, gave us rabbis to try to explain its teachings, gave us a moral choice of how we want to live our lives, and left the rest up to us.

The fact that some people choose the wrong path, up to and including Hitler, does not negate the power of God. Instead, it shows His faith in us, His creations, and His belief that one day we will get it right.

So don’t blame God if we don’t. It’s up to us to focus, or refocus, on what is right and what is wrong, how we relate to ourselves, our fellow Jews, and the world—and fix what’s wrong. And that, my friend who wrote the article dissing Rosh Hashana, is what the holiday is all about: Taking responsibility for our actions and striving to do better next year.

It’s up to us.

—    —    —

Mark Lavie, a journalist, has lived in Israel since 1972. He was brought up Reform in the United States and became Orthodox after moving to Israel.

Cease-fire fails because there’s no Syria anymore: Mark on the radio

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No surprise here–the Syria cease-fire, which was never a cease-fire in the first place, has collapsed. I discussed this with host Bruce Sakalik on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.

It even appears that the US military might have scuttled this truce on purpose, bombing a Syrian army position it supposedly thought was an ISIS target. That’s already a bit hard to believe.

In short order, the Syrian air force backed by the Russians–or the other way around–launched the heaviest air raid in five years of fighting on Aleppo, the bombed-out Syrian city that has become the sorry poster child of this tragic conflict.

My question is why the United States is involved in this military confrontation at all. It appears that Washington’s unquestioned foreign policy goal is to restore Syria to what it was before the civil war erupted in 2011, but perhaps without President Bashar Assad. That’s not going to happen. Syria as a country has ceased to exist and will not be put back together.

Instead, where the West, especially the US, can do some long-term good is helping the millions of refugees who have lost their homes in the fighting. Not only is that a vitally needed humanitarian effort, but also, it could win friends for the West once this all shakes out, whenever that inevitably happens.

 

$38b for Israel, too much math for Mark on the radio

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Trying to explain on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh what the US military aid package to Israel means, I get tripped up doing math. I really need to stop trying that on live radio…

It’s 38 billion dollars over ten years. That’s a lot of money. I explain, though, that calling it foreign aid is not really on the mark. It’s all military assistance, and in the context of US military operations abroad, it’s a small amount–since Israel does not require (or even want) US troops to defend it.

Even so, I have said for years that Israel should try to wean itself away from this aid. It hamstrings Israel’s military acquisition budget, since all of the US aid must be spent in the United States.

I’d add that given the deterioration of the American political system and its reduced footprint in the world, Israel would do well to distance itself from the United States and strike out on its own as an integral part of the Middle East.

But that’s not going to happen for at least another decade.

Syria ceasefire–not even: Mark on the radio

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The contradictions aren’t even in the fine print. The latest US-Russia backed ceasefire in Syria is set to last only 48 hours. Then the two foreign powers get to start up again, with air strikes against al-Qaida and ISIS  targets.

As I discussed with host Bob Bartolomeo on KQV Newsradio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago, that’s not even a truce, much less a cease-fire. In the best case, it’s a way to start funneling aid to the beleaguered people of Aleppo and other crisis areas in Syria, and it calls for US-Russia cooperation in the war against ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria.

That’s it.

This is not the answer to the Syria crisis. It should be fairly clear by now that the major powers cannot provide a solution to this or other conflicts in this region–they will have to shake out by themselves. The key here is helping the people, and at least there’s a start in that direction. Don’t hope for anything more–though of course the critics of US policy, mostly from the right, will continue harping about how the US should be wiping out ISIS, as if that’s possible. It is possible, but not through American or Russian military action.

 

Egypt defeating ISIS in Sinai? Mark on the radio

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Egypt may be close to defeating the ISIS branch in the Sinai desert, and that could have far-ranging ripples for the Western world’s fight against the Islamist terrorists. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh.

The Egyptian military has been engaging the ISIS branch in Sinai, called Waliyat al-Sinai, for two years. Hundreds have been killed on all sides–militants, soldiers and civilians. There are signs that Egypt is about to win the battle, eliminating the ISIS branch as a military force. The question then will be whether without its base in Sinai, it will be able to carry out terror attacks inside Egypt proper.

That’s a vitally important question for the rest of the world. If ISIS can be defeated militarily by a local power, and that strips it of its ability to carry out terror attacks, that could set a pattern for dealing with ISIS elsewhere–if we just pay attention. Israel is helping Egypt a bit, since the Sinai borders Israel, but this is an Egyptian campaign. If it succeeds, we need to note that. Conversely, if it fails–if a military victory does not eliminate the ISIS ability to carry out terror attacks–we need to note that, too.

My guess is that there won’t be a clear-cut answer. There’s no such thing as total victory in today’s world. The clearest result will be the post-op analysis of how effective the campaign has been as opposed to how costly it’s been.

The main element to keep an eye on, though, is the fact that this is a case of a regional power engaging ISIS on its own, without foreign military intervention. If that works, it needs to be repeated elsewhere–because it’s clear to me that the answer to ISIS must come from the region, not the external powers and their forces.

All-out US war on ISIS–both sides of the issue

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This excellent article in The Atlantic comes out against the idea of a”smash and leave” war against ISIS of the type the US tried and failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It warns that just defeating ISIS militarily at great cost and then withdrawing–as opposed to staying and supervising–would accomplish worse than nothing: It would drive ISIS underground, the next radical Islamist group would rise up to take its place…and then what?

In exceptional style these days, though–the Atlantic article links to the opposing arguments throughout. So with this one source, you can spend as long as you like researching the thinking of leading military and political science minds about the issue.

Here is another point that isn’t developed but warrants close consideration. Anyone my age who’s had to take off shoes at an airport should agree:

In our view, U.S. politics overreacts to terrorism—an important problem but not an existential threat to the American way of life unless Americans’ own reactions make it so.

The article advocates containment of all the radical Islamic threats. Where it stops, though, is just before defining what exactly that means , and a clear prescription of what should be done instead of all-out war.

It does mention the humanitarian efforts that can be undertaken, but I believe those are the key to repairing the damage to the West’s image in the Mideast starting from its colonial heritage and extending through the disastrous “smash and leave” operations of the immediate past, especially the US-led war in Iraq.

For a fraction of the money being spent on military operations, the US and its allies could be helping the millions of refugees from the region’s conflicts, allowing them to stay in the region instead of flooding Europe, for example, and giving them acceptable lives while they’re waiting for the dust to settle so that they can return home–which is what the vast majority of them want to do.

It’s worthwhile noting that impoverished refugee camps are crucibles for radical political and religious behavior, so that the camps themselves could generate a security threat in the not too distant future.

Concentrating on helping the refugees is a win-win-win-win deal. It gives aid to the people who are in need, it overrides their drive toward Europe, it refurbishes the damaged image of the West, and it contributes to security.

No other policy offers so many wins.

Turkey invades Syria–US caught in the middle: Mark on the radio

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So Turkey is sending tanks and warplanes across its southern border into Syria, ostensibly fighting ISIS but really fighting Kurdish forces there. I talked about this a few minutes ago with host Bob Bartolomeo on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh.

I can’t help but make this comparison: Vice-president Joe Biden is in Turkey when Turkey invades Syria and battles Syrian Kurds. After Israel, the Kurds are the best US ally in the region. Biden warns the Kurds to withdraw. OK. In 2010, Biden was visiting Israel. The Israelis announced the next step in a well-known plan to build some apartments in a Jewish neighborhood that straddles the old border between Israel and the West Bank. Biden went apoplectic, and the “new settlement” announcement caused a mini-crisis in Israel-US relations.

Just goes to show…nothing makes sense in this region. Turkey’s invasion puts the US in a tough spot, watching one ally clobber another. As usual, the problem is that the US, as a matter of law, has to deal with governments and countries at the expense of other parties. It can’t come out and say, OK, the Mideast is undergoing a historic realignment where the old borders and old countries will fade, and how about if we get out ahead of this and back a sovereign homeland for the Kurds, who are now split among Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran? Why not? Because it’s borderline illegal under US law, and it goes against the habits of centuries of diplomacy of dealing government-to-government.

Except when it comes to the Palestinians. The world has accepted that the Palestinians deserve their own state. They have a good legal basis for that–the 1947 partition approved by the UN called for a Palestinian state, but that was swallowed up by Jordan. But…if the Palestinians deserve a state, so do the Kurds, all the more so.

It’s time for the West to get ahead of history for a change.