When French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy asked his children to read the draft of his book “The Genius of Judaism,” one of them called attention to the obvious question that Lévy had avoided: whether he believes in God. In typical philosophical fashion, Lévy’s reply takes seven pages, but it boils down to a distinction between belief and knowledge. He writes:
What one knows, one knows. When one knows something, there is no need for belief. And when one believes something, that means that one has stopped trying to know it.
This strikes me as an exquisitely Jewish paradox: the only way to know God is to stop believing.
(Then again, all paradoxes strike me as Jewish. I think Paradox is one name for the angel Jacob grappled with.)
Lévy’s paradox makes faith sound like education — the endless pursuit of knowledge. (Indeed, the Yiddish word for synagogue is shul, which comes from the same German word as our word school.)
Lévy is suggesting that faith is a question we have to continually answer by trying to know the world and seeking for justice for everyone. Holiness isn’t piety; it’s curiosity and study, and it’s the fight for a just world. It’s not how earnestly you hold your hands when you pray; it’s how courageously you stand up against bigotry wherever you find it and whoever it comes from.
Don’t look for God, Lévy’s paradox seems to say; look for the truth. When you find it at the end of this long education of our lives, God will be there waiting.
This is the third essay on Judaism that I’ve written for Living &Growing, and it’s the last piece in a series that began with “God of Surprises” and “Disturb Us, Adonai.” And so far I too have avoided saying the obvious:
I have fallen in love with the Jewish faith. I have fallen in love with its insights into how to live and into our relationship with God. These essays recount part of that journey.
What I find most striking in Judaism is the idea, retold every Passover in the story of Exodus, that religion is liberation. The “Reform” in Reform Judaism is meant to communicate a commitment to freeing ourselves and others from the slaveries of our time, whether political, social, intellectual, emotional or technological — or, yes, even religious.
That freedom presumes something else I infer from Lévy’s paradox: a view of faith as akin to what the Ancient Greeks called aporia — continual recognition of our ignorance, our perpetual state of puzzlement. It’s the irony of Socrates, who discovered that he was the wisest man in Greece because he was the only one who knew he wasn’t wise.
It’s beautiful to try to think through Lévy’s paradox and Socrates’ irony; to think through the puzzlements of faith and that Master of All Puzzles we call God. And that’s the point: we can never stop trying to think through these riddles. Maybe after another thousand years of wrestling, we will bring this angel to the mat.
In the meantime, I find in Reform Judaism and Jewish life a reflection of the way I live and think. So, I am converting to Judaism — if they’ll have me.
The big question is why bother formally becoming Jewish? If it’s the way I live and think already, and I continue to study and to work for justice in my own small ways, and my Jewish friends always welcome me at Shabbat services: why do I need to formally convert? I live in a way that, in act and spirit, is already Jewish (emphasis on the -ish: Jew-ish — as my friend Trish would quip).
If I walk like a duck and quack like a duck, it matters altogether less what I call myself. So, what does it matter who I say I am?
In the immortal words of Chico Marx, why a duck?
Here’s why: Going to shul with my Jewish friends, I find something repulsively lukewarm about continuing to be able to say “I’m not a Jew.” When you cast your lot with your friends, you don’t keep open an option for opting out.
• Jim Hale is a Juneau resident. “Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.