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Can Judaism manage without divine authority?

Belief in God dissipated years ago, but now belief in human beings is heading in the same direction

Dr Jonathan Boyd

Assuming God is actually listening to our prayers and supplications, my guess is that He has just one overwhelming emotion as He looks down on us this year. Sadness.

Of course, many British Jews don’t believe He is listening. Or, more precisely, they don’t believe in Him at all. Only 32% of Jews in Britain say that believing in God is ‘very important’ to their Jewish identity. A further 20% say such belief is ‘fairly important’ to them but given that we are talking about the King of Kings, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. I guess the remainder, in God’s eyes, are essentially lost causes – they hold the ‘fairly unimportant’ or ‘very unimportant’ positions.

It’s not our fault. Under the conditions of modernity, we have complete freedom of choice to believe or not to believe. That wasn’t the case in pre-modern times. Belief in God wasn’t something left up to each of us as individuals. It was a given. No one doubted it. No one even knew it could be doubted. So when Jews stood in synagogue at this time of year, the notion that God was writing down and sealing their fate felt overwhelming. Terrifying even. They felt that their lives genuinely hung in the balance.

But modernity changed that. As the American sociologist Peter Berger pointed out already several decades ago, modernity brought with it the ‘heretical imperative’ – not simply the right to choose whether or not to believe, but the compulsion to choose either way. So today, even the third of us who passionately believe in God still have that choice. Yes, they choose to believe. But unlike our pre-modern ancestors, they can revisit that choice any time they like.

The emergence of that choice – and the rejection of God that came with it – prompted human beings to search for new gods, or new ‘narratives,’ to make sense of the world: communism, fascism, socialism, capitalism, feminism, Zionism, and countless other ‘isms’. These differ from each other in numerous obvious ways, but they do have one essential common factor. They all believe in human beings. They all maintain that it is human beings who control our fate. They all argue that we can transform our reality; we can build a better world. We don’t need God anymore because we’re in control.

We have all lived with that profound change – from a God-centred world in which human choice doesn’t exist, to a human-centred one in which God doesn’t exist – for our entire lives. And for much of the post-war era at least, it’s been ok. Not perfect – far from it – but ok.

But recently that modern reality in which human beings believe they are in control has taken a real pounding. We can’t seem to control anything. We can’t control Brexit, we can’t control the government or parliament, we can’t control the Labour Party, we can’t control what comes out of Trump’s mouth, or Netanyahu’s, or even our own mouths, judging by some of what I read on social media. And we certainly can’t control our climate. We are, it seems, totally out of control.

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In short, we seem to have reached a point where that entire post-emancipatory, modern conception of the role and place of human beings in the world has been revealed to be fraudulent. I think that’s why things feel so hopeless right now. We stopped believing in God long ago. But now we’re struggling to believe in the one thing with which we replaced Him. Ourselves.

YouGov data back this up. They demonstrate that our levels of trust in more or less every authority figure – doctors, teachers, police officers, academics, journalists, politicians, trade union leaders – have fallen over time. Ironically, one of the few exceptions is senior officials in the European Union.

Hence God’s sadness. Modernity compelled us to throw Him out, and even those who clung to Him knew deep down that they could let go whenever they wanted with minimal consequences. But now we find ourselves adrift, unable to rely on ourselves, unable to turn to God.

Yom Kippur may be particularly important this year. I don’t expect it to be any easier than usual for many of us to find faith in God. But perhaps we can find a little more faith in ourselves. Whilst that might not give us a reason to believe in God, it might just give God a reason to start to believe in us.

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Dr Jonathan Boyd

Executive Director

Dr Jonathan Boyd

Executive Director

Jonathan has been Executive Director of JPR since 2010, having previously held research and policy positions at the JDC International Centre for Community Development in...

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